College Completion Strategy Guide
Evidence-Based Practices to Improve Outcomes for “Posttraditional” Learners
Implications for policy and practice:
- Direct institutional and state resources to students with “Independent” status on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Reducing financial barriers for “posttraditional” students (all students apart from those who enroll full time straight out of high school) through financial and emergency aid may improve the percentages of them who enroll in and remain in college.
- Provide a dedicated, single point of contact for posttraditional learners. Guidance from a dedicated navigator, adviser, or coach helps posttraditional students accumulate more credit and complete meaningful credentials.
- Consider strategies that coordinate and recognize credit for prior learning (CPL— credit for college-level learning that took place outside of the college classroom, before enrollment) at both the state and institutional levels. Ensure that CPL helps all students and does not exacerbate inequities for students of color.
Policies and practices in higher education are largely designed for students who take what is considered to be the traditional path through college: enrolling directly after high school and attend college full time. But there are many other adult undergraduate students whose life circumstances—attending while working full time, working, having dependents, not having high school diplomas—can make it harder for them to reach their educational objectives. While the National Center for Education Statistics and much of the field uses the language “nontraditional” to describe these learners, this brief refers to adult learners as “posttraditional” students, a more humanizing term used by the American Council on Education and others.
There is not widespread agreement on the definition of the term, however, and there are no uniform data or regularly aggregated metrics to measure the size of this population. Age is often used as a proxy to describe this large, diverse population, and adults over 24 are a small proportion of the college population. But by some other measures, these learners are a distinct majority of college students: The last analysis of posttraditional students by the National Center for Education Statistics, released in 2015, estimated that approximately 74 percent of college students have posttraditional characteristics.
Higher education has not yet risen to the challenge of serving these students. The graduation rate for students over age 24 is 18 percentage points lower than that of younger students. These gaps grow even larger when disaggregated by age, race, and ethnicity: Traditional-aged White students were the subgroup with the highest graduation rate, at 71 percent, while only 34 percent of Black students over age 24 graduated, along with 34 percent of Hispanic students over age 24. Moreover, 46 percent of White students age 24 and older graduated. The completion gaps by both age and race are significant.
While there is limited research into comprehensive reforms to improve the outcomes of posttraditional students, there has been some exploration of interventions targeting them. Emerging evidence indicates that a few types of interventions in particular can improve outcomes for this large and growing group: helping with finances, providing assistance in navigating college, and offering credit for past learning.
Direct state and institutional resources to students with “Independent” status on the FAFSA. Surveys commonly report that adults who are considering enrolling in college are deterred by concerns about finances, student debt, and living expenses. And if they enroll, survey data show that financial problems remain a significant reason why they may not stay enrolled. However, there is a dearth of financial aid programs to support posttraditional students. Since data and definitions of posttraditional students are inconsistent, focusing on Independent status on the FAFSA serves as good proxy for a large proportion of posttraditional students. The most recent available data show that 51 percent of students filing the FAFSA are Independent students. Meanwhile, the Education Commission of the States found that all but one of the 100 largest state financial aid programs include policies that may limit financial aid opportunities for posttraditional students. For example, some financial aid programs include eligibility criteria based on high school performance, excluding students who graduated several years earlier or who do not have traditional high school diplomas. Other financial aid programs restrict eligibility to students who are enrolled full time or who enroll in four-year institutions, limiting opportunities for students who work full time, care for children, or both.
Some states have implemented programs that target students over age 24 and that cover tuition for the first two years, with the idea that such programs could reduce students’ anxiety about potential debt burden. Early descriptive data from one such program, Tennessee Reconnect, suggest that there is significant demand for this sort of financial support, particularly among adults older than 30. Early research on Tennessee Reconnect also provides suggestive though not conclusive evidence that Reconnect increased college enrollment among Tennessee’s adult population. More research into academic outcomes associated with these programs is necessary. However, taken with other early research on the impact of targeted financial aid, this research suggests it might be possible to increase the enrollment of adult students by either expanding the eligibility of existing programs or developing new programs specific to them.
Additionally, emergency aid programs have received attention from philanthropies, higher education administrators, and researchers as an important component of financial support for posttraditional students. These programs provide emergency support to address basic needs and unexpected critical expenses (housing needs, car repair, etc.) that could disrupt enrollment. Indeed, when Congress appropriated money to postsecondary institutions to address disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, $6 billion was allocated for emergency aid directly to students. Research on the effectiveness of these programs is scant, but there are institutional examples that suggest students might have positive outcomes. Additional research will help policymakers determine whether they should fund additional emergency aid programs such as Minnesota’s Emergency Assistance for Postsecondary Students (which appears to have a positive effect on retention).
Provide posttraditional students with guidance from a dedicated, single point of contact. Posttraditional students tend to have more anxiety than their younger counterparts when enrolling in college. Because recent high school graduates can theoretically lean on their existing high school guidance systems to help them make a smooth transition into college, many posttraditional students who enroll in college later believe they are missing knowledge that would be critical to their college success. Without guidance, the administrative systems of many educational and training institutions are difficult to navigate and largely put the onus on students to interpret and manage processes on their own. These complications can have negative effects. For example, a recent study of adults who returned to school and graduated college after a period of not being enrolled found that administrative issues had been a significant barrier to completion. It was difficult for them to clear bureaucratic hurdles such as filing a graduation application even when that was the last requirement to being awarded a degree.
There are several examples that demonstrate that a navigator, academic coach, or academic adviser serving as a dedicated, single point of contact can help guide posttraditional students through academic and administrative challenges, especially at community colleges. For example, a meta-analysis of programs using navigators funded through federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants at 42 colleges found that students who interacted more with navigators were more likely to earn a certificate or workforce credential and were more likely to be employed after the program. Similarly, a study of the BOOST consortium (a TAACCCT-funded initiative to support careers in health care at six community colleges that served mostly—65 percent—students of color) found that the frequency of meeting with a navigator to address personal, academic, and career barriers was correlated with earning a credential. While TAACCCT demonstrated successful outcomes with navigators in both the meta-analysis and the BOOST study, many of these roles were not sustained at the colleges involved when the grants ended.
Other institutions and states have also used dedicated navigators, coaches, and advisers to advance students’ progress and success. For example, the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs is a comprehensive approach to student support services that includes dedicated advising as a central element. A randomized controlled trial of a replication of the model at three Ohio colleges demonstrated increased credit accumulation for older, posttraditional students and students of color. Similarly, a randomized controlled trial of Project Quest, which also included intensive advising, showed that the program improved credit accumulation and program completion for people of color and posttraditional students. Further empirical research on advising and student support services for posttraditional students is warranted.
Consider strategies that recognize credit for prior learning (CPL), ensuring that CPL does not exacerbate inequities for students of color. Credit for prior learning and prior-learning assessment (PLA) are processes to award credit for college-level learning that took place outside of the college classroom, before enrollment. More research is needed, but CPL shows a potentially positive impact on credential completion for posttraditional students and students of color. A quasi-experimental study from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning suggests PLA students earned 17.6 more college credits than non-PLA students (over and above the credits earned through PLA). Moreover, the research suggests that there was a 17 percent increase in the graduation rate of posttraditional PLA students, when the research attempted to control for other factors. Hispanic, community college, and Pell Grant students appear to have experienced even greater increases in their graduation rates than other populations. However, Black students were found to have lower rates of participation in PLA than other races and ethnicities.
An additional, descriptive analysis of the Colorado Community College System’s CPL program suggests that CPL may have improved the graduation rate, although the effect appeared smaller for posttraditional students over age 25. However, the effects are not statistically significant for Black and Asian students. The practice of CPL in Colorado—and in other studies—appears to reduce the costs to students of earning a degree and the time it takes them to earn a degree, and increase the likelihood that students will graduate, and it may also provide some validation and sense of belonging for adult learners that is less tangible but also critically important for this population. Yet it is important to note that apparent gaps in CPL participation—especially among Black students—indicate a need for further analysis to identify how CPL policies and approaches might affect students of color.
State policymakers should create conditions that advance CPL by promoting statewide agreements that make it easy for students and advisers to understand how CPL can help with degree requirements, and that ensure students will retain credits they earn through CPL when they transfer schools. Research for Action has published a comprehensive policy toolkit that includes more examples of state-level policies to advance CPL.
Simultaneously, at the institutional level, leaders should develop automated systems to review all posttraditional students and determine whether they are candidates for CPL. For example, Lorain County Community College in Ohio built on the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s PLA with a Purpose initiative, using TAACCCT funds, to create FastPathOhio, an automated portal that multiple institutions now use to grant CPL. This web-based portal guides students, advisers, and faculty members through the processes of reviewing and awarding CPL.
Shifting higher education systems and structures to be more responsive to the needs of posttraditional students is no small task. Yet there have been few programs that have even tried to address the diverse needs of this large and heterogenous group, and even less research about what works. Much more research is needed to build evidence about what works. The strongest way to start would be to build on the interventions highlighted in this brief that have already shown success.
- The Adult-Ready Playbook: A Comprehensive Policy and Practice Guide to Improve Outcomes for Post-Traditional Learners | Education Strategy Group
- Returning to Learning: Adults’ Success in College is Key to America’s Future | Lumina Foundation
- A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College | Public Agenda
- All Learning Counts: State Policy Toolkit | Research for Action
- Power of a Promise: Implications and Importance of Adult Promise Programs | State Higher Education Executive Officers
The FAFSA defines an “Independent” student as one who is at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor, or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Advising was one of several interventions of ASAP in Ohio and Project Quest, so it is difficult to measure the effect of advising specifically. More research is warranted.
The Education Strategy Group (ESG) is a consulting firm that works with K-12, higher education, and workforce leaders to improve student success and advance equity.