Adult College Completion in the 21st Century: What We Know and What We Don't

69 Pages Posted: 26 Jun 2015

Date Written: June 18, 2015


While interest in adult college completion is at an all-time high, colleges and universities must change their policies and practices to better serve students who return to college as adults.

The report discusses how interest in adult college completion has increased across the higher education community. At the same time, significant obstacles remain for the 30 to 35 million American adults who have enrolled in college but never completed a degree or certificate. While not insurmountable, those challenges could have far-reaching impacts if left unaddressed.

The report’s authors suggest that too many returning adult students get lost in a bureaucratic maze and find themselves unable to re-enroll in college and/or complete a degree. Using data from a range of sources, the report explores the challenges adult students face when returning to college and identifies effective practices for supporting these students when they do return to school. The report also examines the role of local, state, and national partnerships that bring together higher education and workforce entities to engage this prospective student population, recognizing the importance of employment and career advancement to many returning adult students.

The report identifies important changes in higher education policy and practice that would benefit returning adult students, including: • Access to advisors capable of addressing adult students’ complex needs • Student services available during non-traditional business hours or online • Additional sources of financial aid, particularly at the state level • A more transparent process to help students understand, prior to enrolling, whether their existing credits will transfer • Flexible course scheduling, online courses, and innovative degree-completion programs • Access to opportunities to earn credit for prior learning

Keywords: college access, college completion, adult students, adult college completion, prior learning assessment, competency-based education

JEL Classification: I21

Suggested Citation

Erisman, Wendy and Steele, Patricia, Adult College Completion in the 21st Century: What We Know and What We Don't (June 18, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Wendy Erisman

Strix Research LLC ( email )

5766 Balcones Dr.
Ste. 202
Austin, TX 78731
United States

Patricia Steele (Contact Author)

Higher Ed Insight ( email )

641 S St. NW
3rd Floor
Washington, DC District Of Columbia 20001
United States
2024129732 (Phone)


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