According to 2015 data reported in Forbes, 22% of Americans have attended some college without reaching graduation.
The reasons students may drop out of college or discontinue taking classes are greatly varied, but nearly half of prospective college students are concerned they may have to drop out at some point in their academic careers.
Michael Cottam, the associate vice president for academic affairs and the director of the Online Learning Center at Webster University, said many of the students who have discontinued classes and degree programs at his institution face the crush of numerous personal and professional responsibilities. But now, it is these students Webster is targeting for re-enrollment, hoping to move the number of individuals with a degree forward.
“We focus on graduate students, so our average online student age is 36 years old. So you’re talking about people who have careers, families,” Cottam said. “The challenges aren’t always an inability to handle the academics, because these are students who have had success in the past. These challenges are related to children, to family, to travel, for military students, related to deployment.”
Webster University is a non-profit university with campuses throughout the world, as well as robust online learning classes. Cottam said that while the school had long been concentrating on adult learners, he has made a more concerted effort to focus on re-enrolling college dropouts in the past year. Cottam said the typical student who had stopped attending class at Webster would be more likely to have discontinued their education because of other work and life responsibilities, rather than academic hardships, which means they may be more in need of coaching services to introduce them back into the fold.
“The coaching conversation, it’s a holistic approach to helping the student succeed in the goal the student wants to achieve. It’s a little different conversation than a purely academic conversation,” Cottam said. “A coaching conversation starts with a discussion of those goals: What’s your plan? Do you have a strategy for childcare or when you have to travel? They’ll talk students through a plan to have success in fitting school into those student’s busy lives.”
One of the things Webster offered that so appealed to re-enrollees later in adulthood is the flexibility of options between online sessions, live video lectures and in-person instruction, with students responding to the ability to switch between them from term to term in pursuit of a degree or credential. An enlisted service member, for example, may be deployed during one term and need to take an online class, whereas if he or she returned to a domestic base at a later date, Webster may have a campus onsite or nearby. The flexibility, Cottam said, makes it easier not to lose students entirely to the myriad pressures of their lives. Additionally, since the school tended to target older students, Cottam found students tended to be more comfortable with utilizing multiple forms of learning, whether it is online or in-person.
“We’re seeing less of a distinction between modality ... meaning, they’re looking for the degree, the program that will help them advance, and sometimes they want it to be in person, and sometimes they want it to be online,” he said. “As you move into the current generation, they’ve very comfortable and can succeed in both ways.”
The need to renew efforts to reach adult learners, including students with college experience but no degree, is all the more necessary when institutions consider the sobering demographics of students turning the traditional age for college; Cottam acknowledged it had been a shrinking number for several years. He said the industry was in transition as it became a market of degree completion, rather than being wedded to the conventional four-year degree path embarked on by a student immediately after high school graduation.
Cottam said he believe the industry was in a form of “bimodal distribution,” with some schools stressing their fidelity to the traditional model while others were skilled in alternative education programs for non-traditional learners. The changes, he said, were still underway in that wide middle ground of institutions. Still, whatever the particular school, he said it was difficult to imagine any institution ignoring the potential consequences of ignoring such a wide potential array of applicants.
“I think it’s imperative that we in higher education learn to help those students,” he said. “Having some credit and not graduating doesn’t give you a credential.”