Colleges look to attract older students

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Colleges are testing new tactics to increase the number of adult learners in the classroom after years of a downturn in enrollment. 

Postsecondary enrollment in Michigan declined by 1.7%, or 7,463 students, in fall 2021. From fall 2019 to 2020, enrollment dropped 9.2%, or 44,578 students, according to estimates by National Student Clearinghouse

This problem isn’t limited to traditional college-age students because students 24 and older experienced the sharpest relative enrollment decline. In fall 2021, adult enrollment dropped by 3.4% or 210,800 students nationally. 

Many universities and community colleges are making efforts to reduce those numbers and, in the process, designing ways to meet the needs of older learners, such as child care options and advising services.

At Wayne State University, the Warrior Way Back Program is aimed at re-enrolling adult learners with some previous education. 

The debt-forgiveness program helps students who left Wayne State owing $1,500 or less return to the university, according to Amber Neher, the adviser for the program. 

Students must meet certain criteria to qualify: They cannot have attended for at least two years, must have left with a minimum GPA of 2.0 and must owe the university $1,500 or less. 

“We’ve partnered a lot with the Detroit Regional Chamber to help facilitate students returning, whether it’s to Wayne State or maybe to another local institution. While we want students to return to Wayne State, we understand it’s not the best fit for everybody,” Neher said. “Likewise, for someone who went to Oakland (University), it may no longer be the best fit, so they come to Wayne State.”

Neher noticed that having a dedicated support team has made all the difference for adult learners once they are on campus. 

“We developed a strong team, including adult learner advisers, an adult learner career coach and an adult learner liaison, so there are some folks who are specific to adult learners,” she said.

Wayne State also has emergency grants, a food pantry and the Wayne Wardrobe Initiative, which provides gently used business attire and casual wear. It’s in the process of finding a new way to provide child care. 

The university currently provides child care options for students, but acknowledges that those options are limited. 

According to Neher, it was the first program of its kind in Michigan. 

“To date, we have welcomed 298 students into the Warrior Way Back program. Of those, 66 graduated from Wayne State while enrolled in Warrior Way Back,” Neher said. 

In total, 88 Warrior Way Back-affiliated students have earned their degrees.

According to Bob Murphy, the chief policy officer at the Michigan Association of State Universities, some adult learners were misguided when initially entering the workforce. He said that while a lot of people were told to consider a skilled trade instead of college, the salary estimates provided may not have been entirely accurate.

Murphy said that many adult learners require a different set of needs and support, as “life gets in the way for them sometimes.”

“Many adult learners work at full-time careers and have to fit in studies and research after that. Most folks my age have a family that they’re raising, or they’re taking care of parents or other elders,” he said. 

“There’s a complete dearth of affordable child care at the moment, and so a lot of folks left the labor market and never came back in because they’re providing that child care.”

Murphy said many universities have online offerings in programs that adult learners tend to enroll in. 

“We hear continuously that most adult learners want flexible delivery models online, maybe asynchronous, because they fit it in at the end of the day when the jobs are done and the family is tucked in bed,” Murphy said.

Neher agreed, saying Wayne State has seen a big demand for online, evening and weekend courses since before the pandemic. 

Murphy said Michigan Reconnect is another great opportunity to get a degree from a community college.

Reconnect allows adult learners to enroll in local community college classes for free. The only requirements are that the participant has no prior degree, is above age 25, has been a Michigan resident for at least one year and has a high school diploma or equivalent.

“We know that Reconnect is doing a lot of good for the community college sector, and I think it could really be applied to the public university sector. It’s a great demand, and it would be transformational for adult learners pursuing a bachelor degree around the state,” he said. 

“They aren’t eligible, but it would be nice,” Murphy said.

As of March 2022, Michigan community colleges reported that over 500 Reconnectors have completed their skills certificate or an associate degree program, according to Erica Quealy, the communications director for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

“Most adult learners have families, jobs and other obligations that may make their consideration of going back or starting college more challenging. We want them to know that they are not alone in this process,” Quealy said. 

Quealy said applicants who are accepted to Michigan Reconnect receive one-on-one guidance from a Navigator to help with many aspects of higher education, from choosing a degree program to registering for classes to applying for financial aid and scholarships.

“Higher education or skills training opens so many doors and provides a pathway to a rewarding career and bigger paychecks,” Quealy said.

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