Serving Adult Learners at UNC Charlotte, From Start to 49er Finish – and Everywhere in Between
There are nearly 40 million Americans who enrolled in college (since 1993) but left with no credential to show for it. It’s bad enough that lacking a credential tends to restrict access to career paths. For partial completers, college expenses and debt can add insult to injury.
The good news is that it’s never too late. A recent study of more than 125 million professional profiles correlated a return to college with improved earnings for adult learners — $7,500 per year on average. A return of adult learners would also bode well for institutions amid the challenging enrollment environment that has plagued postsecondary education in the pandemic era.
Long before the pandemic, CAEL institutional member UNC Charlotte was focused on meeting adult learners where they are. When it comes to UNC’s 49er Finish Program, that includes off campus. Well off campus. The 49er Finish Program is dedicated to adult learners who left the university without completing and who were last enrolled more than a year ago.
Launched in 2005, the 49er Finish Program is housed in the university’s Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES). “The goal of the program is to assist students who had already invested so much time and money in their degree, bring them back, and help them finish,” said Abby Altany, academic advisor and program coordinator for 49er Finish.
To ease reentry, the 49er Finish Program waives application fees. Students must have completed at least 90 UNC Charlotte credit hours, maintained a GPA of at least 2.0, and be in good academic, disciplinary, and financial standing to qualify for the program. Depending on the amount, OASES can refer otherwise-qualified students who have a previous balance to the bursar’s office to determine repayment plan.
As is the case with adult learners in general, a diversity of reasons account for why 49er Finish students haven’t been able to count “student” among their full-time jobs. “It’s different life circumstances,” said Altany. Usually, that means some combination of family and workplace obligations.
Reasons for returning also vary. Career advancement is the most common motivator, says Altany. But she also helps students for whom learning is a personal goal. “I have some people who are retired and say, ‘You know, let’s come back and finish.’”
Whatever their reasons for returning, students can take as long as they need to finish. Some may require as many as 30 additional hours. For others, a handful of specific courses is the last step to a completed degree.
OASES’ operating schedule extends beyond traditional academic hours, making it easier for students to access its resources. They include 49er Finish counselors, who help students plot their completion timeline and navigate the program. “The number-one question we are asked is ‘What do I need to finish my degree?’” said Altany.
Some are closer than they think, some a bit further. The uncertainty tends to be greater the longer it’s been since they attended, according to Altany.
To answer that question, program counselors compare current degree programs with the course catalogs that prevailed during students’ prior enrollments. Reminiscent of other adult learner-friendly work like crosswalking and recognizing prior learning, counselors ensure that all eligible previous coursework is credited toward a current degree program.
“If we have students that began on an older catalog, there's a process to get the agenda that they started on to count for our general education now,” said Altany. The matches aren’t always clearcut, but after a review, counselors can offer incoming 49er Finish students an accurate assessment of how many, if any, general education credits they still need.
Student advocacy continues with academic programs. “The 49er Finish Program is that liaison between the academic department and student and looking out for what their best option is,” said Altany. “We give them a rough idea based on our current catalog and previous catalogs, but ultimately, that comes down to their academic department.”
As academic departments assess various catalogs, they are usually able to do so to the advantage of students, Altany said. For example, 49er Finish enrollees may be able to eschew a foreign language requirement that hadn’t been in place during their previous enrollment.
49er Finish counselors also help students get the answers they need about financing their return. In addition to being a liaison with the bursar’s office, they help demystify scholarship options and navigate available programs.
The completion plans 49er Finish counselors draw up are unique to each student, said Altany. “Sometimes that plan is going to take a couple of semesters, sometimes it takes just one elective credit. Ultimately, we want the most graduates possible.”
So far, the 49er Finish Program has produced more than 1,200 of those graduates. It boasts an 86% completion rate, contrasting favorably to the overall postsecondary rate of 64%.
In addition to the robust counseling and other adult learner resources, Altany credits longstanding marketing efforts for the program’s success. In spring of 2022 alone, OASES reached out to more than 1,300 prospective 49er Finish students.
Outreach includes printed mail and an email campaign. Messaging emphasizes the support available to help adult learners finish what they started — no matter how long ago that journey began. To complement messaging targeted to individual contacts, Altany OASES is planning social media campaigns, which will highlight the personal stories behind the program’s many success stories.
Unsurprisingly, such success has garnered the 49er Finish Program broad acclaim, including several awards. In 2009, it won the Outstanding Advising Program award from the National Academic Advising Association. The American Association for Adult and Continuing Education presented the program with the Malcolm Knowles Award for Outstanding Adult Education Program in 2012. Most recently, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities deemed the 49er Finish Program an important innovation in public higher education.
Visit oases.charlotte.edu to learn more about the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services and the 49er Finish Program.
It’s a pleasure for CAEL to spread the word about the great work CAEL members like UNC Charlotte are doing for adult learners. Visit cael.org to become a member. Interested in sharing your own adult learning success story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.