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CAEL Pathways Blog

Present-day Policies To Create a Brighter Future for Comebackers

On Feb. 5, California Competes, a nonpartisan policy group tackling California's education and workforce challenges, released From Setback to Success: Meeting Comebackers Where They Are. The report, supported by The Kresge Foundation, offers guidance on supporting former college students in their successful completion of a degree.

There are several CAEL connections to the report beyond its focus on adult learners. The term Comebackers, which From Setback to Success uses to refer to adult learners who reenroll, was coined by The Graduate! Network (TGN), and a TGN affiliate member organization, Project Attain!, was a partner in the research. (In case you missed it, last year, CAEL announced a new strategic partnership with The Graduate! Network to operate TGN's portfolio of products and services as TGN@CAEL.) Dr. Su Jin Jez, CEO of California Competes, is a prior board member of TGN and the recipient of the 2021 Pamela Tate Rise Award, presented at CAEL’s annual conference.

Moreover, the report bases its findings on interviews with Comebackers who had completed degrees (or soon would) at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State), or Shasta College. Both are CAEL institutional members.

From Setback to Success cites the 6+ million California adults who have completed some college but no credential (SCNC) as critical to mitigating workforce shortages, declining college enrollment, and a worsening equity gap. Arguing that SCNC adult learners are not only underserved but understudied, the report draws on the experiences of 52 Comebackers to outline recommendations for colleges to reengage such students and better support their enrollment and completion. 

While adult learners are a diverse population with unique individual needs, their responses made it clear that they are of like mind in the belief that higher ed must adapt to better accommodate them, a finding the report flags as its biggest takeaway. Echoing several tenets of CAEL's recent research on institutional effectiveness, it calls for greater adaptability, more effective communications targeted to adult learners, the dismantling of barriers to reenrollment, and persistent, well-tailored support. 

Credit for prior learning (CPL), competency-based education, greater choice around scheduling and modality, and accelerated courses are among the ways colleges can be more adaptable to Comebackers, according to From Setback to Success. For example, it notes that several interview subjects credited Shasta College's Accelerated College Education (ACE) program's 100% online format for allowing them to resume and complete their college degree. They also praised the program's accelerated (eight-week blocks vs. 17-week) terms.

Buffy Tanner, director of innovation and special projects at Shasta College and a CAEL Ambassador, is a firm believer in compressed, accelerated courses for adult learners. “Students who can enroll full-time have the advantage of accessing more financial aid, not to mention reduced time to completion,” she said. “But traditional semester-long courses require students to pile four to five courses on top of their already busy lives as employees, parents, partners, and/or caretakers for aging relatives.”

“With compressed 8-week classes, our students can focus on only two classes at a time, but be enrolled full-time over the course of the semester,” she added. “If they decide to go part-time and only take one 8-week course at a time, they still manage to enroll in two courses per term.”

Tanner reiterated that such an arrangement allows students more access to federal and state aid and creates a faster path to completion than taking one full-length semester class at a time. However, she stressed that this doesn’t make compressed courses easy. “All the content and rigor are still present,” she said. “But we prepare the students about the intensity and pace of the courses, and overall, they are very successful in this format.”

Sacramento State's College of Continuing Education is also effective at engaging, enrolling, and graduating Comebackers, the report found. Several of its recommendations, including individual outreach, the streamlined reentry paperwork, permitting readmission outside of the normal application cycles, closely examining individual catalog rights, and forgiveness of institutional debt, are elements of Sacramento State’s HornetAttain! program, according to Tony Sheppard, a professor and member of the HornetAttain! pilot-project team. As an active CAEL member institution, Sacramento State presented on these and other HornetAttain! activities at CAEL’s conferences in San Diego (2021) and Chicago (2022).

When it comes to better engaging Comebackers, for some colleges, that could start with something as simple as a personal call or email. Most of the students interviewed for From Setback to Success said the colleges they withdrew from never contacted them. Others received canned communication. Many reported that had the outreach felt genuine – what we might call high-quality outreach – it may have prompted them to resume their education journey sooner, a sentiment, the report notes, substantiated in other analyses. “This research project caused us to take a hard look at our academic probation process - the language use, including the word ‘probation’ itself, the communication, the lack of follow-up outreach … this second year of the project is all about focusing on overhauling our academic probation program,” said Tanner.

TGN@CAEL’s research also supports the effectiveness of personalized outreach for Comebackers as documented in The Comebacker’s Odyssey. Potential adult returners who received sustained, high-quality contact (HQCs) from a specially trained navigator reenrolled at a rate almost four times that of the national SCNC population (50 percent versus 13 percent), and they graduated at a higher rate as well. Given such a compelling impact, it’s not surprising to see this principle put into practice elsewhere in the CAEL membership community. Recent examples include the ACHIEVE project at Elizabethtown College, the 49er Finish Program at UNC Charlotte, and the It's Not Over partnership that includes Kutztown University

Unsurprisingly, CPL makes another appearance in From Setback to Success amid its recommendations for removing reenrollment barriers. Citing CAEL research linking CPL to completion, it urges colleges to assess their CPL policies and consider opportunities for enhancing them. This is also consistent with CAEL’s ongoing internal work group and community of practice related to CPL and credit mobility for students moving between or returning to college. Student-friendly registration, grading, catalog, and fee policies are among the additional remedies suggested in response to the frustrations Comebackers report about the reenrollment process.

Providing ongoing support, the report's final tranche of key recommendations, hinges on fostering a sense of belonging through a genuine adult learner community. It advocates for dedicated advisors, online access to information and other resources, peer spaces (including virtual options), and clearer guidance on planning and tracking progress along education pathways. 

One interviewed Comebacker, a first-generation student parent, credited his academic department for making him feel part of just such a community, an advantage he said was a difference maker in his successful return to college and completion of a bachelor's degree. "It's just that piece of inclusivity, where you feel like you're a part of it. You have a group of people around you, and you know you're not alone."

He might welcome the latest addition to Sacramento State’s adult learning resources. The university has a new student club specifically for adult learners, Sheppard said, which provides informal gatherings intended to fit various schedules and which serve as a place where students can meet and share common experiences and solutions.

From Setback to Success: Meeting Comebackers Where They Are is available for download at californiacompetes.com.

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