A push to bring adult learners back to complete their degrees

At a time when a strong labor market is enticing college students to pause their studies and prioritize full-time employment, postsecondary institutions are seeking ways to re-engage learners who have some credit but no degree. They do so in the midst of “a white hot job market” with 1.9 jobs for every available worker, the fastest wage growth since the early 1980s, and teenage unemployment near its lowest levels since the 1950s.

However, The New York Times recently pointed out that “today’s remarkable economic strength is unlikely to continue” and highlighted the looming risks for workers without college degrees, who historically have been among the first to lose their jobs when unemployment grows. Research from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that earning a college degree is the surest way to career advancement, lower unemployment, and long-term financial stability.

But those downstream benefits often aren’t enough to re-engage adult students juggling jobs, families, and other competing priorities, let alone ensure that they can complete their degrees. A new initiative at Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore, Maryland, recognizes that so-called “stopped out” students require a tailored approach.

This spring, Morgan State launched a College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies (CICS) specifically for students with some college but no credential returning to complete their bachelor’s degree, according to The Hechinger Report. The university’s outreach to returning students began with the founding of its applied liberal studies major five years ago, and it announced its Morgan Completes You (MCY) initiative last year, aimed at recruiting college students who stopped out. CICS houses MYU and its eight undergraduate and 10 advanced degree majors for non-traditional, adult college students.

Related: Why students leave college – and how to bring them back >

Support for returning students

In its recruitment of non-traditional students, returning students, working adults who want new credentials for a career change, and students who need or prefer remote education, CICS touts its flexible online classes. It also offers “in-state tuition” to all students, regardless of their location, and awards college credit for students’ work and research experience.

To increase student retention, CICS also provides “support mechanisms that a lot of adult learners need,” Nicholas Vaught, the interim assistant dean for academics and student success in the CICS, tells The Hechinger Report. Returning students are paired with an advisor, who provides support and access to nonacademic resources that help students reacclimate to college life. The data company ReUp is also working with Morgan to assist returning students as they navigate financial aid, credit transfers, and other bureaucratic systems while finding personal and professional fulfillment in their academic work.

Related: Mental health, cost concerns driving students away from higher ed, report shows >

Prioritizing degree completion

Robin Golden, a student who first enrolled at Morgan State in 1981 but left two years later, recently graduated at age 59 from the university’s applied liberal arts program. She says she warns her kids not to make the same choices she did when she left college for full-time work. “I told them all, ‘Don’t do that. Because you could be stuck in a life of low paying jobs, where you don’t feel valued.’ And that was me,” Golden says.

Golden says the support offered by Morgan State was critical in helping her make use of credits she had earned earlier and craft a swift path to completing her degree. For prospective returning college students who have accumulated work experience, started families, and are managing other responsibilities, Vaught says CICS will “provide the flexibility and the support to help them get over the finish line.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Software company tries ‘flipping the script’ on college applications

What if colleges pursued and applied for students, rather than the other way around? One company hopes the approach will broaden students’ opportunities, reduce strain on counselors, and diversify college campuses.