Adult learners in N.C. are teaching community colleges a thing or two

Five community colleges in North Carolina piloted a program to bring in new adult learners this fall. The number of takers exceeded expectations—and two thirds of students completed or re-enrolled.

Seven months ago, five of North Carolina’s community colleges agreed to pilot a new approach to attract adult learners. N.C. Reconnect was designed to get adults who’d had an unsuccessful experience with college to re-enroll, with a focus on fast, flexible, and affordable programs that lead to good jobs.

The related outreach campaign, “Better Skills. Better Jobs.,” launched in June, and the colleges had roughly 35 days to figure out how to implement the effort on each of their campuses.

  • That sprint brought in an additional 753 students for the fall.
  • And, by the end of the semester, 87 percent of those students received grades in their courses and 68 percent either completed a credential or re-enrolled for spring 2022

“If you would have asked us last spring when we jumped off this cliff, ‘What do you wish to accomplish?’ I would have said 500 unique enrollees is a good day’s work,” said Mike Krause, senior advisor to the John M. Belk Endowment, which helped design and fund the initiative.

Krause was the founding director of the Tennessee Promise, and launched several major workforce development programs as director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. In other words, he has experience in designing policies and programs to get adults back in education—and it’s hard.

The big idea: Community colleges across the country are experimenting with targeted programs to get more adult learners into and through certificate or degree programs. North Carolina is among the states that have been leaders in this work—and EducationNC, a nonprofit newsroom, has been following the developments through on-the-ground reporting.

Early results

The details: The N.C. Reconnect pilot project started with five community colleges of varying sizes across the state: Blue Ridge, Durham Technical, Fayetteville Technical, Pitt, and Vance-Granville. Participating meant moving fast, but also taking the time to ask tough questions about how their college was meeting the diverse needs of adult learners.

“Serving our adult learners helps us become more equitable,” Krause said. “Each of these colleges had a population of students that we knew if we served the adult learner well, we would also help that community close some of their most pressing equity gaps.”

Leaders involved in N.C. Reconnect share updates during the State Board of Community Colleges meeting in November 2021. (Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

In collaboration with the John M Belk Endowment, myFutureNC, and the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, the colleges began a re-enrollment campaign aimed at individuals who had previously attended their institutions.

  • They focused on individuals, including a pool of adult learners, who had completed at least 50 percent of a degree or credential and had been enrolled within the last five years. About 12,000 would-be students met that criteria.
  • The initiative also included outreach to a broader group of adult learners in the institutions’ service areas.

To recruit students, the colleges worked with InsideTrack, an affiliate in the Strada Education Network that partners with colleges and universities to improve enrollment, persistence, and career readiness. Together, the colleges and InsideTrack reached out with calls, texts, and emails to the 12,000 prospects for whom they had current or updated contact information.

Krause said the message that resonated with students is that you can get a better skill and a better job—and the road to that runs through college.

Data analyzed in January 2022 showed out of 12,000, 753 students re-enrolled at one of the five colleges in fall 2021. That is almost a 6.3 percent yield. Krause, in a meeting with the State Board of Community Colleges, said a typical re-enrollment campaign at most colleges would have yielded between 1 and 2 percent.

By the end of the fall semester, 87 percent of those students received grades in their courses and 68 percent either completed a credential or enrolled in spring 2022 classes. 

Looking at the 753 students, the Belk Center analyzed data across the five colleges to determine whether persistence rates among adult learners were significantly different than 18-to-24 year-old students. Adult learners who were enrolled on day one were 43 percent less likely to still be enrolled after four weeks of class than students under 25 years old.  

In addition to comparing the two age groups, the Belk Center looked at persistence rates across racial demographics and between full-time and part-time students enrolled through the initiative. 

Attending full-time correlated with persistence, but seemed to matter more for younger students. 

  • Students of all ages who were enrolled full-time on day one were 44 percent more likely to still be enrolled four weeks later compared to those who were enrolled part-time.
  • Adult learners who were enrolled full-time on day one were 21 percent more likely to be enrolled four weeks later compared to adults enrolled part-time.

Of the 753 students who were enrolled on day one, those who were Black, Hispanic, or American Indian were 46 percent less likely to still be enrolled four weeks later than students of other racial and ethnic groups.

However, those same students of color were more likely to persist to the spring than white students if they made it past the four-week threshold.

It is still early days for the project, with more data and more work to come. In November, the pilot was extended to include five more community colleges: Caldwell, Central Carolina, Forsyth Technical, Lenoir, and Wilkes. The second cohort of colleges launched their efforts in February.

Changing the college model

Students at Pitt Community College create lego planes in an assembly line. (Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC)

In the fall, as N.C. Reconnect got off the ground, administrators said it had become increasingly clear that their colleges’ operating models did not account for the unique needs of adult learners.

The colleges have been working to change that, with a particular focus on providing more wraparound services—everything from help with transportation and child care to basic needs like food and clothing. 

Leaders at Pitt Community College created a new Adult Learning Center to provide support to students during the admissions process and beyond. Fayetteville Technical plans to open a similar center soon.

To better understand each adult learner, Pitt developed an intake form to assess students and connect them to support services. The form asks a series of questions on everything from a student’s knowledge of college terminology to academic goals to course delivery preference to employment status. It also asks students to identify areas in which they may need assistance or additional support, including academics, finances, career planning, food assistance, child care, technology access, transportation, and more.  

Thinking differently about the day

Pitt found that providing essential supports to students can be challenging when most college services stop after 5 p.m. So, it modified hours for certain services and the Adult Learning Center is open Monday to Saturday starting at 8 am, and doesn’t close until 7 pm most weekdays.

Other colleges also have extended service hours and are thinking differently about the operating day. “Gone are the days of 9 to 5,” said Antonio Jordan, director of admissions and enrollment services at Vance-Granville.

Abraham Dones, assistant dean at Durham Tech, agrees. Dones said they realized early on in the initiative they needed to amend their schedules to meet the needs of adult learners. So they did. 

Using three enrollment specialists, Durham Tech created a robust schedule to help fill evening and weekend hours.

“What we realized is there’s no defined pattern of the best time to reach an adult learner,” Dones said. “We are realizing the needs are very individualistic.”

Flexible courses: But it’s not just operating hours that are changing. Several pilot colleges are offering HyFlex courses, which combine face-to-face instruction with online learning. HyFlex courses are offered in person and both synchronously and asynchronously online. Students can choose how to participate and when.

Mark Sorrells, senior vice president of academic and student services at Fayetteville Technical, said if a student can’t make a 12 pm class because of their work schedule that day, it’s not a problem.

“You can plug into the instructional component of it and the workplace component of it anytime you want,” Sorrells said.

The college is opening 16 labs across campus for HyFlex learning. Currently the HyFlex courses are part of the medical lab technician program, but Fayetteville Tech hopes to extend the model to other programs in the future.

Some colleges are also offering eight-week semesters to provide flexibility for students. A student who may have initially been overwhelmed with taking four or five classes in one 16-week semester can now take two or three classes in each eight-week semester.

The result is a more manageable course load while still retaining full-time status. And according to the Belk Center’s data, full-time student status is linked to higher persistence rates.

Knowing why students aren’t enrolling

Rachel Desmarais, president of Vance-Granville, said one thing that has been important during this initiative is understanding why people are not attending.

“Every college needs to do some really hard work into finding out why their population isn’t attending. And we cannot assume that it is the same for everybody,” Desmarais said. 

For Fayetteville Tech, who serves a large military population, a drop in college attendance can sometimes be attributed to military tours. That isn’t the case at Vance-Granville. 

Desmarais said their students often drop out because of debt or financial aid restrictions. 

When Vance-Granville reviewed the list of students who had previously been enrolled but stopped attending, they found that many of these students had small debts preventing them from re-enrolling. 

So the college responded by clearing the debts of 214 students totaling over $116,000.   

“But it’s not just a matter of solving the immediate pain point,” Desmarais said. “It’s also looking at our systems and our college and the way we do things to help…remove barriers to attend our school. And we have to challenge the way things work, and it’s not comfortable.”  

Those barriers are often the very policies colleges put in place. 

Amending policies

For years, Blue Ridge had a policy that would only allow students who requested an incomplete in a course one semester of extension.

“If the student was in the midst of a semester and something goes sideways for them and they’re not able to finish that course, then we could issue them an incomplete,” said Kirsten Bunch, vice president for student services at Blue Ridge. “But that would only carry for one semester. And if they didn’t finish, they would end up either with a withdrawal grade or fail grade.”

Bunch said that it didn’t seem very forgiving to let the calendar dictate whether or not a student would receive credit for a course, so the college changed the policy. 

Community and connections

Students at Blue Ridge Community College. (EducationNC)

In addition to changing operating hours, support services, and policies, community college leaders involved in the pilot said one of the biggest changes has been in how they communicate internally and externally about the priority they place on adult learners. 

Reflecting on a recent lecture attended by college leaders, Desmarais said colleges need to think about who is not being heard and ask who is missing from their student population.

This type of intentionality extends beyond making adjustments on college campuses. Shifting a college model that has not always met the needs of its most vulnerable population takes an all-hands-on-deck approach. 

And for that, administrators say the community is key. 

“We spend way too much time in our hallowed halls thinking people are going to come to us,” said Desmarais. We’ve got to go out, we’ve got to meet them where they are. You know—have tablet, will travel.”

Vance-Granville is sending their success coaches out into the community. One success coach will spend a portion of their time each week at the local economic development center, which happens to be located next to a skate park, a playground, and a basketball court. 

“Go to where the people are,” Desmarais said. 

And Pitt Community College is taking classes on the road, offering courses in a variety of locations throughout their service areas. 

Leaders from Blue Ridge and Fayetteville Tech said connecting with nonprofits and government agencies has helped them engage with the community in a different way.  

“We went to the ministerial council, we went to churches, we went to nonprofits…and neighborhoods that we normally don’t get people going to college and we said, ‘How can we engage? How can we help you with your needs?’” Sorrells said. 

One partnership that grew from those conversations is new work with the local housing authority to train some of their residents in property maintenance. The residents are immediately employed doing maintenance in apartment communities, and through their training with Fayetteville Tech, they receive a nationally-recognized certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

“And those individuals are getting a job and they become a leader in their community,” Sorrells said. “But they also are earning income.”

Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge, said partnerships with government agencies are just as critical as partnerships with nonprofits.  

Two years ago, the Henderson County Department of Social Services and Blue Ridge formed a partnership in hopes of meeting the growing demand for more social workers. The college started an associate degree program in human services technology to help build the talent pool for the department. 

When the adult learner initiative started, Leatherwood connected with the social services department to ask for its help in spreading the word about free college and the variety of educational opportunities at Blue Ridge. 

“They did multiple mailers to their clients and then all their social workers had flyers to share with the clients when they were doing casework with the clients,” Leatherwood said. 

Similar to Blue Ridge, Pitt Community College partners with the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office to connect with a vulnerable population. The PCC Reentry Program helps people get back on their feet after they’ve been in detention or imprisoned.

“We send people into the detention center and work on human resource development courses and adult high school GED opportunities,” Smith said. 

Faculty and students at Durham Technical Community College. (Caroline Parker/EducationNC)

Connecting with area employers is also crucial to reengaging adult learners.

“They are our best, most important brand ambassadors, and they’re actually our best recruiters,” said JB Buxton, president of Durham Tech. “When our employers say to prospective applicants, either specifically or generally, ‘You want to come work for us, go to Durham Tech—here’s a pathway for you.’ They will sell the opportunity we provide better than we ever will.”

The work surrounding this initiative is far more than just making connections and getting students enrolled, college leaders said, it’s about meeting the needs of students and employers. 

“It’s about serving those students that we’ve not previously served, or that have stopped out…,” said Rouse. “And it’s not just about FTE or revenue, but it’s about making sure that your community is able to be valuable, particularly in this time when there are lots of good jobs out here.”

“It’s an opportune time for people to move up the economic ladder if they get the right skills.”

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst and writer with EducationNC, which produced this article as part of a series on how North Carolina is serving adult learners.

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