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Accreditor will require colleges to stop ignoring adult student retention
As a result, colleges are content to keep enrolling adult students, who enroll part-time and are cheaper to serve than the labor-intensive, high-touch business of teaching traditional-aged students on a residential campus, even if those adult students aren’t earning degrees. And institutions would collect more tuition revenue if a larger number of adult students stuck with it. But because accreditors and the federal government do not require them to collect graduation and retention rate data for part-time, adult students, there is little impetus for colleges to take the lead.
It also doesn’t help that data on the segment are hard to collect, and generally compare unfavorably to completion rates for traditional students, said Barbara Karlin, provost at Golden Gate University.
Many adult students arrive with credits, sometimes earned at multiple institutions or from prior-learning assessment – credit for college-level learning outside of the academic setting, such as for work experience or military training.
“No one even understands them,” Karlin said.
Adult students often “stop out” multiple times, and bounce around several institutions before earning a degree. Even a determined part-time, adult student can take eight years or more to earn a bachelor’s degree. As a result, an institution that serves a large number of adults would likely see its six-year graduation rate take a dip if it begins tracking and reporting numbers for adult students. That's because even a 35 percent six-year rate wouldn’t be bad for this population, at least compared to most institutions today.
The completion agenda may be helping end some of the indifference in higher education about the success of adult students.
WASC has taken a substantial step in this direction with the recent release of a template for tracking undergraduate retention and completion rates, which also includes metrics for measuring adult student performance. A template for graduate programs is also in the works.
The accreditor has begun a pilot program in which eight of its accredited institutions will use the template next fall, said Teri Cannon, executive vice president of WASC’s Senior College Commission. Over the next three years, however, WASC plans to require all of its four-year institutions to collect the information to maintain their accreditation. And that means graduation rates for all students, including adults, will be part of the mix.