UNC’s Adult Learner Convening focuses on strategies to help students who have stopped out

With support from the state General Assembly, the University of North Carolina is helping North Carolina residents who “stopped out” before completing their degree. UNC is leading efforts to assist its member campuses and provide venues to exchange ideas to best help “partway home” students – students who have some academic credit at a UNC campus, but who were unable to complete their degrees.

Many of these students stop out because of reasons unrelated to academics, including military service, financial issues, family commitments or health problems. The University wants these students re-enroll in college to earn their diplomas, thus giving the state a more educated workforce and engaged residents.

Adult Learner Convening

The Adult Learner Convening, held in April in Winston-Salem, gathered representatives from each institution together. The University is working collaboratively with campuses to identify those students, determine why they didn’t finish, and develop a plan to help them earn a degree.

The two-day convening included presentations from representatives from higher education organizations, systems, and institutions from across the country to share their experiences, expertise, and approaches for serving partway home students. Time was dedicated to inter- and-intra-institutional discussions around policy and practice to generate ideas and approaches to better serve adult learners and attract partway home students back to complete their degree.  

“The Adult Learner Convening was an excellent opportunity to share with our colleagues the work the UNC General Administration team has been engaged in over the last nine months and expose system representatives to the innovations taking place across the country,” said Samantha McAuliffe-Raynor, the director of special projects and strategic assessment for the University. “Feedback from attendees solidified that the opportunity to talk with one another was an important learning experience.”

Preventative approach

UNC’s partway home project team has taken a holistic approach to the challenges associated with this issue. One of those challenges is keeping students enrolled. During a session called “Preventing stop-out at UNC,” panelists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina Wilmington and East Carolina University each presented the different methods used to identify students who are in danger of stopping out and working with them to keep them on the path to degree attainment. These pilot projects were selected through a competitive proposal process made possible with funding provided by the General Assembly.

Each campus is structuring their pilots differently, but many of the underlying themes remain the same: studying the reasons why students stop out; better advising of students; working with students who may need help financially; and creating degree programs that are suited to help students earn a diploma.

The data is important, said Elise Demeter, senior assessment research analyst for UNC Charlotte. She said the data for UNC Charlotte show that female and black students are more likely to stop out even though they may be on solid academic footing. Demeter said UNC Charlotte officials are building predictive models designed to help the university engage those students most likely to stop out and prevent it.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Selingo, an author who has written extensively about adult education, noted the role data plays in identifying these students. Selingo said that education has changed extensively on a national level: while employers used to think a college degree meant a graduate had the necessary training for a job, they are now seeking employees with specific skills and competencies, in addition to having a degree from an accredited institution. Internships are much more critical these days in terms of landing a job with a specific company than they were in the past.

Given that employers are now focusing on a graduate’s skills, Michelle Soler, director of Competency-Based Assessment & Education at the University, led a panel discussion on how working adults are able to demonstrate competencies they already have to complete a degree or a certification at a UNC campus. A panel of faculty members from Winston-Salem State University spoke about competency-based education by highlighting the effort to develop a nursing program that will allow working nurses to complete an advanced degree more quickly because they already have necessary and relevant training.

The conference concluded with roundtable discussions as attendees exchanged ideas about policies and practices affecting adult learners and ways their institution might enhance adult learner programs at their respective universities.

Collaboration with Colleagues

Paul Townend, associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate studies at UNC Wilmington, served as both a presenter and as a representative of a campus taking a multi-pronged approach to helping adult learners.

“We’re in the process of creating an interdisciplinary studies degree that is targeted for stop outs,” he said. “We’re building an advising infrastructure to work with stopped out students. We’re doing work sessions across campus, which is nice because it gives everyone the opportunity to talk through what’s going on.”

Townend said the convening was a good opportunity to talk with educators who already had interdisciplinary degrees offered at their universities.

“It was good being able to follow up face-to-face,” he said. “They had a lot of practical insight on interdisciplinary degrees. I asked to sit down with them and think about what our next steps might be. We learned a lot from each other.”

Reaching out to partway home students and convincing them to return to college is one of the great challenges facing all of the institutions, said Tim Hunt, the student success coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

“The biggest thing I took away from the convening was the session with the University of Tennessee folks and how they reach out to various segments of the partway home population,” he said. “I enjoyed the ideas in that session. I’ve emailed them to see how to use some of their ideas. To get the students back, it’s really about branding and advising. All we’re doing right now is sending out postcards.”

Attendee surveys indicated an interest in determining their campus’ readiness to serve adult learners, engage in collaborative and system-wide efforts to reach partway home students, and participate in training sessions to learn more about developing Prior Learning Assessment/Experiential Learning and Competency-Based Learning programs.

“We learned that UNC General Administration has a key role to play in crafting a strategy and approach to serving the adult learners and UNC partway home students across the state,” McAuliffe-Raynor said. “We can learn from the successes of other states who have done research and built robust programs and adapt them to serve our needs here in North Carolina.”


Written by Phillip Ramati