Calbright - California Competes Report on Returning Students

We Must Support Adults Coming Back To College – Here’s How

Over 6 million Californians ages 25 to 64 started college but left before earning a credential. Maybe they joined the workforce, or needed to care for their families; maybe they had a health crisis, or maybe college was just too expensive. But they still need a college education to thrive in the workforce, and the state of California needs skilled workers to keep its economy thriving. So what will it take to get them back?

That’s the question California Competes asked and answered in a new report out this month. It looks at the struggles faced by students who left college and then returned and the help they needed, then and now.

In total, California Competes found four things that colleges can do to support students returning to college: 

  1. Adapt to meet the needs of today’s students 
  2. Conduct strategic outreach 
  3. Remove re-enrollment barriers 
  4. Provide ongoing support

Reading the report, we’re proud to say that a lot of what such students need is what Calbright has to offer.

Adapting To Meet The Needs Of Today’s Students

Today’s students, especially working adults, have needs that are distinctly modern, and are difficult for traditional schools, designed in the last century, to meet. To better serve these students, California Competes recommends more online courses and degree programs, with academic calendars that better fit students’ lives.

The report says:

It is highly disruptive to their progress if students miss the registration deadline and have to wait months to re-enroll, or if a life circumstance pops up in the middle of a 16-week semester and they need to stop out. By offering courses on a more accelerated academic term, colleges can increase entry points, offer more flexibility (leading to possibly fewer midterm withdrawals), and allow students to focus their time and attention on fewer classes at one time, all while taking the same number of classes per academic year, thus maintaining full-time status.

This is exactly right, which is why at Calbright:

  • We offer exclusively online courses and programs that are designed as a virtual curriculum from the start. 
  • Our academic calendar is open and flexibly paced: students can enroll whenever they’re ready, and complete their programs on their own timeline. If they need to pause, they can do it without penalty.
  • Our courses are all accelerated, leading not to degrees but to industry valued certifications: each program is designed to be completed in a year or less.

Conducting Strategic Outreach

“The vast majority of our interviewees reported receiving no communication from the college after they stopped out. Some recalled receiving a form email about re enrolling that felt impersonal and was not very helpful in their current situation,” the California Competes report notes. “Many surmised that a warm outreach from the college could have shortened their time to re enrollment and completion.”

This is absolutely right: Adult and returning students can benefit significantly from frequent, direct, and personalized communications. That’s one of the secrets behind Calbright’s persistence rates, which are significantly higher than the California Community Colleges system’s average. 

But outreach is about more than communicating: it’s about listening. Calbright’s outreach works because we’re not just talking, we’re hearing what students’ concerns are, what barriers they face, and where they encounter pain points. Then, we act fast to make changes that will help them. 

Outreach is great, but students need institutions to provide quick turnarounds on decisions and policies. Students often already know what they need, and are willing to tell us. That’s why we focus on finding ways to remove the logistical barriers that students face, connecting them with resources they can use, and finding ways to say “yes.” 

Using Inclusive Marketing Materials and Language

“When asked how colleges might get more adult learners or comebackers to return, some of our study participants felt that it was important to see people “like them” reflected on the website and in print and virtual ads, and for all materials and staff to employ inclusive language that reassures students they are welcome at the college,” the report said. It specifically recommends using language and visual images that include a diverse array of adult and returning students, while not assuming that “typical” students are coming directly from high school.

Calbright was specifically created by California to support “stranded” workers, the millions of adult Californians who need a college education to transition their careers but are underserved by traditional institutions. While we’re open to every adult Californian with a high school diploma or equivalent, we are specifically designed to meet the needs of adult students, including returning students, and both our programming and marketing materials are designed to support them.

That’s why:

  • We’re a free online community college. There is no tuition or fees – we don’t even need to have a credit card on file.
  • We accept every qualifying student who applies, with almost no paperwork or complicated forms.
  • We use a Competency-Based Education model which allows students to set their own pace and timelines for studying, so that their classes fit their lives, rather than forcing their lives to fit their classes.

That approach is why Calbright’s students are significantly more diverse than most comparable institutions:

  • More than 90% of Calbright students are at least 25 years old (compared to about 36% across the CCC system).
  • Nearly a third of Calbright students are parents or caregivers (compared to 10% across the CCC).
  • 35.4% of Calbright students identify as Latinx, 22.3% 22.3% as Black, 22% as Asian, 4.8% as Native American, and 3.1% as Native Hawaiian or Pacific islander.
  • Calbright represents California: Calbright has students in 52 of California’s 58 counties, including many rural counties where there are no local colleges.

When you design your systems for diverse students, you get diverse students.

Provide Academic Support

Finally, California Competes recognizes that for too many students, academic intervention and support comes too late. Colleges need to be proactive and provide help before there’s a crisis. Their report recommends encouraging faculty outreach, engaging before a student’s grades drop, connecting advisors with students, and offering “support classes.”

Once again, Calbright is ahead of the curve. Calbright classes don’t use grades, our classes use a pass/fail system. Students keep studying without penalty until they’ve mastered the material. Calbright automatically connects students with academic advisors and success coaches, and they follow each students’ progress and offer support in time to make a difference. Students can pause their program whenever they need, again without penalty, and their counselors will help them pick it up again when they’re ready. 

There’s so much work to be done in the California education system as a whole to support the needs of adult and returning students, but Calbright is proving that a free, flexible, online education model is a significant solution. The higher education system envisioned by California Competes can exist, and it can work for everyone.  

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