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CAEL Pathways Blog

Adult Learners Don’t Stop Out Because They Can’t Handle the Academics


A few years ago, researchers learned that degree completion rates were higher for students who enrolled full-time. Eureka! The key to improving degree completion is to encourage more students to increase their course loads. 

Easier said than done. Truth is, when students aren’t taking a full course load, it’s not because they don’t want to. There are usually other reasons, primarily work demands, family responsibilities, or both. Adult learners are often defined by these characteristics, so it’s no surprise that their road to credential completion can resemble a “leaky” pipe, with periodic drops (or “drips”) in enrollment. 

Traditionally the term for this phenomenon is “stopping out” and it’s a common challenge for institutions supporting adult learners. 

Lana Munip, former Senior Director of Research, has authored a CAEL research brief looking at why adult learners say they have stopped out in the past. In Stopping Out: It’s Not About Academics, she shares data from CAEL’s larger study of adult learner financing decisions. When asked why they stopped out in the past, those surveyed said that the reasons were far more likely to be related to health, personal issues, money, or time constraints than academic reasons. Notably, many adult learners viewed stopping out as “taking a break” rather than dropping out completely.

The bigger point is this: adult learners engage in higher education differently. Adult-serving institutions know that these learners need more flexible programs that can work with their busy lives, they may need other kinds of support services, and they may need better options for financing learning. But because their lives are so different from that of a 4-year residential college student, we also might want to find ways to recognize that these up-and-down enrollment patterns may be a feature rather than a bug. So, consider ways to provide easier reenrollment pathways, eliminate penalties for part-time students that are baked into our financial aid systems, and recognize that success sometimes requires taking an occasional break when life gets in the way.

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