There’s no ‘adult learner store’

North Carolina’s community colleges have a long history of educating students of all ages, from high school students taking college classes to retirees picking up a new hobby. Recently, however, the state’s colleges have begun focusing much more heavily on recruiting adult learners.

Like a number of states, North Carolina has focused its efforts on re-engaging adults who started but never completed a college education. Gov. Roy Cooper directed $3.5 million in federal recovery funds to a new Longleaf Complete grant for adults who are at least 50 percent of the way to a degree. And three prominent organizations in the state came together to launch NC Reconnect and a related outreach campaign—“Better Skills. Better Jobs.”—to support five targeted community colleges in attracting adult learners to enroll this fall and beyond.

EducationNC, a nonprofit newsroom, has been following the developments through on-the-ground reporting at all five colleges involved in the project. The lessons those institutions learned—about recruiting adults, making programs more affordable, and rethinking advising and other student services—have implications for colleges across the country.

Recruiting and communicating with adult learners

The big idea: Unlike high school students, adult learners aren’t concentrated in one location, and colleges may not know they are interested in attending until they reach out. (Read a related story featuring student perspectives here.)  

There is not an adult learner store where you can go to find them,” said Misty Lyon, dean of enrollment management at Fayetteville Tech Community College.

Each of the five colleges worked with InsideTrack, a company that provides re-enrollment and student support services, to identify students who had started a credential but never completed it. InsideTrack reached out to the previously enrolled students using text, phone, and email.

The details: Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, said the college focused on students who had left the institution no more than five years ago and who had completed at least 50 percent of their credential. 

The five pilot schools also worked with VisionPoint Marketing to deliver digital advertising, focused on “Better Skills. Better Jobs.” Blue Ridge ran ran that campaign and a parallel one campaign with the tagline, “Free College.

The colleges found that when it comes to reaching adult learners, choosing the right recruiting and marketing strategies can prove difficult, particularly when adult learners say different types of communication helped them make their decision to return.

“We need to make sure that we’re communicating in a way that’s right for our community,” said Rachel Desmarais, president of Vance-Granville Community College. 

Vance-Granville serves four mostly rural counties in the north central part of the state. According to Desmarais, print and radio still work as recruiting tools in those counties. In many cases, older individuals who read the newspaper are telling younger people in their homes about opportunities at the college. 

Allied health students at Blue Ridge Community College. (Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

On the ground: Staff at each college discussed the importance of being in the community and creating partnerships. From attending baseball games to participating in food drives to hosting trivia nights, being present in the community they serve is critical to bringing in students.

“I will sometimes see my old students at the gym. And they will say, ‘Oh, Mr. Blake, I know you’re riding that bike, but can you talk … to my friend. I want him to take a welding class,’” said Blake Williams, success coach coordinator at Durham Technical Community College. 

It’s also critical, staff said, that frontline recruiters have a strong understanding of all of an institution’s programs and are able to respond in a timely manner to student inquiries.

“Any individual who is engaged with a potential student or returning student…[needs] to be well versed in the work that we’re doing overall. It can’t be compartmentalized,” said Abraham Dones, assistant dean and registrar at Durham Tech. 

Strategy and focus: Staff also emphasized the need for a strategic communication plan during the initial recruitment phase and beyond.

Fayetteville Technical Community College is in the process of implementing a customer relationship management tool that will send personalized messages to students and track where students are in the admissions process. The CRM can be customized, allowing for segmentation between different audiences, and it is automated. 

But you don’t need a CRM to segment audiences. All that’s required is an intentional focus. JB Buxton, president of Durham Tech, said that a lot of the college’s marketing felt like they were only for recent high school graduates—and while it was good marketing, the college wasn’t speaking with a united voice to adults. 

“This initiative gave us a chance to address a population that we knew was interested in what Durham Tech had to offer, but we didn’t always talk to in a targeted way,” Buxton said. 

Parting thought: When it comes to choosing the right recruiting and communication strategy, colleges agree that it really takes a comprehensive approach. That means emails, texts, phone calls, letters, billboards, postcards, radio, digital advertising, geofencing–the list goes on. 

“We are more connected than we’ve ever been in history. However, we are harder to get a hold of, and it’s harder to market because people don’t have all those normal avenues that we used in the past,” said Lyons.

Changing the operating model

The big idea: Community colleges have historically been structured in a way that represents the college experiences of their leaders, which is often a traditional college model.

Community colleges have trained and educated adult learners from their earliest years, but their operating models too often don’t reflect the student population they serve and are trying to reach. 

The details: One way this shows up is in scheduling and expectations on students’ time. Many adult learners may only be able to engage with the college at night and on weekends. “We need to change our hours of operation,” said Desmarais.

Blue Ridge adult learner backpack. (Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

But operating hours aren’t the only problem. For many students, navigating the college during the admissions process is a pain point. Whether it be physically navigating the campus or having to connect with multiple offices, students can often feel overwhelmed. 

To alleviate some of this, Pitt Community College has plans to launch an Adult Center—a centralized location where adult learners can find support and resources in one place. The center will also house staff who have been trained to counsel adult learners, said Rouse.  

At Blue Ridge Community College, adult learners were given a branded backpack filled with items they will need throughout their college journey. 

What students say: During our student interviews, almost every student said it would be good to have a refresher of the resources the college offers at different points in their academic career. Students described being bombarded with information initially and forgetting much of it later on in the semester. One student suggested having a landing page that lists every resource the college offers in one place.

Students taking non-credit classes suggested having more information up front about credit-bearing courses that could provide a seamless transition.

Desmarais agreed. These students need guidance, she said. And her goal is to have even more non-credit to credit offerings. Longer-term, she would like to do away with the term non-credit altogether, because she thinks it creates a deficit mindset. 

Adult learners need help paying for college 

The big idea: Planning and paying for college can be a burden for many adult learners. For students who fall into the “some college, no degree” population, finances can be especially challenging. 

Whether they have used all of their federal Pell grant money or have outstanding college debts, starting school with a financial burden can impact a student’s decision to return. 

In an effort to re-engage students, some colleges are using Higher Education Relief Funds or private money to forgive small debts to help students. Other colleges are offering free tuition

Making the math work: Leatherwood ran a data scenario with a 10 percent enrollment increase over the next academic year. She then asked, how much money would I need to cover the tuition of every student, no matter the credential or degree? 

“Then we took all the pots of money and threw them into one big pot and we asked, can we cover these students?” 

And the answer was yes. 

Retaining students

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

The big idea: Without prompting, students discussed the impact someone from the college had on their academic career. Sometimes it was an instructor or an advisor, but the sentiment was always the same — relationships made a big difference.

A number of colleges are taking a more intentional approach to helping students build those one-on-one relationships. 

The details: Three of the five pilot schools have or plan to hire additional success coaches who are responsible for tracking and following-up with students once they are enrolled.  

All of the colleges were looking at ways their advising model could be revamped to create a case-management approach to academic advising.

Mark Sorrells, senior vice president of academic and student services at FTCC, said the college recognized that their advising model needed work. 

“If you are in a CTE program on campus, you probably have quality advising. But if you’re in college transfer, there’s a problem because most of the students get assigned an advisor that they never have in class,” Sorrells said.

Is the work worth doing?

Each college shared the fast pace at which the pilot initiative was implemented. And that it added additional work on staff who already wear multiple hats. 

So we asked the staff, “Is the work worth doing?”

Kirsten Bunch, vice president of student services at Blue Ridge, answered the question with a story: Bunch and others recently attended a scholarship luncheon where a former Blue Ridge student, Luke, was speaking. 

When Bunch stood up to refill her water, Luke walked with her. While standing in line, he leaned over and asked Bunch if she had ever worked in the admissions office. She had. 

And that’s when the student told her he remembered her. He had called one day with an issue and Bunch worked with him over the phone, helping him stay in his classes. It meant a lot to him.

“That story is exactly why we do what we do,” said Bunch. “So you asked, ‘Is it worth doing?’ One Luke is worth what we are doing.”

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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