There’s an experiment happening right now in places like Durham, Fayetteville and Greenville that is trying to get more adults to come back to community colleges.
This is an important experiment. If it is successful— and I think it will be — it may be rolled out to all 58 community colleges. It could change lives. And it could upgrade the skills of North Carolina’s workforce, which would be good for business.
I have written several times over the past year about the effort to get 2 million folks ages 25-44 a high-quality credential — a certificate or an associate’s degree and beyond — by 2030. Good jobs are going to increasingly require more training and skill than we currently have in our workforce. The main drivers of this have been the organization myFutureNC and the John M. Belk Endowment.
This was going to be a very heavy lift when the goal was set by these groups in February 2019 and then won official state backing. If it did nothing different, the state was originally on track to have 1.6 million of these folks with credentials. So, 2 million required us to get an extra 400,000 people through some sort of college program in this decade.
The pandemic has made it more difficult. For one thing, community college enrollment took a hit. Many colleges were down double digits in total headcount in the fall of 2020, compared to the previous year.
That spurred a group of people to action, including Cecilia Holden, president and CEO of myFutureNC, and MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the Belk Endowment, one of the state’s leading education-focused nonprofits. They have launched an ambitious pilot program with five community colleges this summer to recruit adult learners to enroll in the colleges for the fall semester. The targets are folks who attended one of the colleges, but stopped short of a certificate or a degree for some reason.
The initiative, called Better Skills, Better Jobs, will reach out to nearly 12,000 former students with text messages, emails, and phone calls. It will include a marketing campaign and social media. A national nonprofit, InsideTrack, has been hired to manage the outreach and make the initial communication to prospects. Mike Krause, former executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, has been hired as a consultant. Others involved include Dr. Eric Fotheringham, the UNC System’s director of community college partnerships and adult learner initiatives and Dr. Audrey Jaeger, executive director of N.C. State’s Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research.
When you add in five community college presidents and their staffs, there’s a lot of firepower.
“We felt like with the declining numbers in our community colleges in terms of enrollment, that we needed to take action,” says Holden. “If we don’t focus on our adult learner population, we’re not going to meet our 2 million by 2030 goal.”
The reason why adult learners with some college are an attractive target is that there are so many of them. Around 1.2 million North Carolina adults have had some college, but didn’t finish a program. Now, that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from college. Some got enough from a semester or two to get the job they wanted, and they stopped. But that leaves a lot of people who got halfway through, dropped out, and might respond to a direct pitch to come back and finish.
No one is under any illusions that getting folks 25 and older to come back to school is easy.
“This notion that adult learners …. that they are the quote low-hanging fruit, is not true,” says Krause, who served in the 101st Airborne Division before going to college.
“There’s a reason why college didn’t work for them. So, to reach adult learners, you’ve to answer two questions. One, why do I need to go to college, and two, why will it work for me now?”
The project group has spent a fair amount of time on the first question. While the overall pitch is to come back to college, get a better job, the message will be tailored to programs for specific types of opportunities in each region. “It’s going to be specific to areas of industry, depending on whether it’s Pitt or Durham or where it may be,” says Holden.
The folks working on the initiative have also given a lot of thought to the second question. People in their late 20s, 30s and 40s have more complex lives than most 18-year-olds, and returning to school requires them to figure out a lot of things, including how they will succeed this time.
Many of the people who are reached through this campaign are individuals “who are probably going to need child care, who are going to need ideas for transportation,” says UNC’s Fotheringham. “If they are going to take classes online, they might need laptops.” The outreach team will share these needs back to the community colleges where they can help prospects solve their specific problems.
But the process also recognizes that colleges are typically designed for 18-year-olds. The photos on their web sites and brochures reinforce that. When they show up for advising, older students can find themselves in waiting rooms filled with recent high school graduates and their parents. The pilot program is trying strategies to make older adults feel more welcome when they walk through the front door.
Fall semester classes start in around six weeks. The pilot program will then watch in real time what is happening with the adult learners who have come back.
“We want to see what did and didn’t work,” says Belk Pilon. “We do not just want to increase students coming, but we also want students to be finishing.”
That means, according to N.C. State’s Jaeger, that the program will do focus groups and interviews with students starting at 10 days into the semester, and then at eight weeks and then at the end. There may be support services that need to be tweaked during the semester, or lessons that can be used system-wide. And a key moment, says Jaeger, is during registration for the Spring semester, making sure the focus stays on this group to help them keep moving forward.
She also wants to talk to prospects who didn’t enroll, to figure out why the campaign didn’t bring them back.
My sense is that there are obstacles prospects may be reluctant to talk about when they are called over the next six week: guilt and fear. The other problems getting in the way are real, and prospects will list them for outreach callers, but they may be reluctant to open up about the other stuff with strangers.
Going back to college after dropping out often means going back to a situation where you weren’t successful. I dropped out of college my first time, and just didn’t want to think about it. I went to work. It took me five years to go back, and then seven years going nights part-time to finish my degree, first to a community college and then to a university. Going back was hard, but it helped that there were academic counselors who were kind and helpful. I had an employer who paid my tuition. And most important, my wife was supportive.
When you’re trying to bring people back to college, understand that this is a difficult thing you are asking them to do. It is more than just the time you are asking them to commit to, or the logistics.
Many think they had their shot, and muffed it, and don’t deserve a second chance. You are asking them to risk failure again. So, the first thing you need to do is tell them to stop beating themselves up; they will make it this time, and here’s how you will help them succeed.