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The following interview is with Allyson Handley, president of University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), and Gregory LaPointe, UMA’s executive director of institutional research and planning. A few months ago, the University of Maine System’s Adult Baccalaureate Completion Distance Education Steering Committee outlined a set of recommendations they believed would help improve adult student completion rates across Maine. In this interview, Handley and LaPointe share their thoughts on these recommendations, discuss critical factors to non-traditional student success and outline changes critical to increasing adult access to higher education.

1. When thinking about non-traditional students today, what are the biggest barriers that stand in the way of their access to higher education?

Allyson Handley (AH): I think access and the availability of services to support students is a really key issue. Certainly, affordability is another; these are students who have come up through the higher education system in a non-traditional way and they have busy and demanding lives — personal lives as well as professional and work lives —so affordability and access are key areas that present problems.

Similarly, even though we had an explosion in the availability of online offerings — particularly in a dispersed-population state like Maine — technology access and broadband access are issues.

And, then, one of the big areas the report focused on was fragmented services. Time-bound and place-bound adults need to have streamlined services to enable them to maneuver higher education and then sometimes academic policies make it really challenging for students in this group to succeed.

Gregory LaPointe (GL): Because the majority of these students are first generation, the whole process is new to them. And then they begin to dabble with whether this is doable for them. …

As Allyson mentioned, [students must ask themselves], “How do I pay for this with juggling all these other responsibilities — family, expenses?” It really starts before that in terms of what services the institutions provide.

2. Why is it important that institutions look to reduce these barriers for students?

AH: In a state like Maine, for example, there are, out of the 1.4 million population, about 220,000 citizens in Maine who have some college but no degree. So, they are in a limbo state in that if they have student loans that are activated because they aren’t actively completing their degrees, they don’t get the benefit in the return on investment of having a completed degree.

And, so, there’s a real push in Maine currently to assist and support those 220,000 who have some college but no degree. We know that baccalaureate degree attainment is not only tied to personal prosperity and earning power, but it’s also very closely tied to the economic prosperity of a state or region. And that’s reflected in per capita income, which is very low in Maine.

GL: And, additionally, at the end of the day, statistics show us that a majority of students now in higher education are this adult, non-traditional population.

So, for most institutions — perhaps maybe not the elite — the success of the enterprise is dependent on these non-traditional students and, as Allyson has mentioned, the future of the state of the nation. We all know college attainment is a key factor in the success of businesses and for people personally.

3. What are a few strategies institutions could put into place to increase access for non-traditional students who may be coming back to complete their degree or who may be looking to enroll in higher education for the first time?

AH: In our review of literature and best practices across the nation, the single point of contact — concierge services model — is by far the most successful component of increasing access and increasing return [to the academy]. …

In addition to concierge services, we’ve found there needs to be a consistent marketing outreach approach to this group. Often when you talk about the barriers, some of those barriers are lack of confidence and they’re self directed; people sometimes aren’t aware of what are the support services, what are the opportunities. So, marketing and outreach to this population is critical.

Academic programs need to be flexible for this student population. … Some students in this group prefer face-to-face instruction, at least when they’re starting out, but the availability of online academic programs that are flexible [are important]. We find adults are very goal directed, so programs geared to job attainment in specific careers are appealing.

As Greg mentioned, financial aid and tuition support is critical, and even with the federal Pell dollars — and in some states there are fairly generous scholarships, like the HOPE Scholarship — those often are not available or they penalize part-time adult students who may be working in part-time jobs or have a job where they’re not that much above the poverty line and they don’t qualify for programs because of their current earnings and because they will need to be a part-time student.

Credit for prior learning, PLA [prior learning assessment] and the availability of transfer credit is really a critical factor in ensuring students’ success. So portfolio programs that enable you to document what you’ve accomplished in the state budget office or working for a retail company or in manufacturing [allow students to show learning outside of the classroom]. Many traditional institutions are just not set up to be able to assist and respond to those needs of students.

We find partnerships, working very closing with adult education entities, certainly working with career centers — [and] the University of Maine System works closely with the state department of labor —  those kinds of affiliations and partnerships really provide a structured path for adult students to complete degrees.

4. You mentioned the importance of a single point of contact or a concierge services model. What is a concierge service model and why is it valuable for adults?

AH: Well, taking from the concierge model that we see in hotels, the notion here is that there is one person — or, in some of our larger institutions, there would be multiple people — in place where an adult student can get in touch with the institution, where there’s a program they’re interested in or they’re just exploring the possibility of going back. And when you think about adult schedules, as Greg was underlining, these are people who are working, they have [family] responsibilities. So, an admissions office that closes at 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon is not going to be a very attractive point of contact for that adult student. So, flexible hours that recognize their complicated lives.

But also … adult students don’t have time to go around to 12 different offices working through the maze of institutional bureaucracy — admissions, advising, financial aid, career offices, etc. The concierge service model designates an individual person to assist with, and facilitate the interface of, the adult student with the university.

GL: Especially as you think about a student’s life cycle within the institution — from admission all the way to graduation — they’re ensuring they continue to make progress, and as they perhaps run into bottlenecks, there is someone there they can always count on. There’s a relationship they’re comfortable with to ensure they succeed. That’s why we’re here; we want students to graduate.

5. By the same token, what kinds of policy changes could be made at a government level to increase access to, and success in, higher education for adults?

AH: We mentioned Pell Grants, and although we are extremely grateful that the Pell program, in terms of dollar amounts over the last few years, has not been cut back and has even been increased. Unfortunately, when that was occurring, there were policy changes with Pell Grants where students are no longer able to get three consecutive semesters of support. So, the maximum number of semesters of support in Pell is two semesters per year. That had really devastating consequences for many adult students who were partially living off of their Pell Grant in order to survive.

Secondly, state and the federal government needs to really look closely at the definitions and the way we categorize ‘full time.’ The reality is adult students step in and out of higher education and, by the very nature of the fact that they are older than 25, they can’t devote their entire week to completing a degree. So, we need more flexibility and sensitivity and policies around that.

Also, the way student progress is counted, the traditional method — and it’s tied directly to the eligibility of an institution to offer financial aid — is [based on] the IPEDS data. IPEDS, a national program that all institutions report annually on, it measures progress for first time, full-time freshman. Well, it’s very difficult with adult students who are stepping in and out of courses to even accurately determine whether they are freshman or sophomores. That’s not a critical feature in the minds of many adult students. They’re focused on completion and there’s a very interesting alternative model that I’ll let Greg tell you about, developed by Gary Rice of the University of Alaska, called the Student Learning Progress Model.

GL: Essentially, it’s being able to calculate [adult student] success from their perspective. A few of the metrics are looking at all of the courses they’ve completed at a point in time, and seeing which ones they’ve been successful in. The big thing on IPEDS is, to be successful, you have to [complete your courses and graduate] in this certain amount of time. It’s taking the time element out of it. … This is one way to measure knowledge and also being able to look at the tracks that [students] leave in our institution; perhaps stepping out for a few semesters, coming back, maybe going to a sister institution or another institution to take coursework. Just because they’re taking a course somewhere else, that is not a bad thing. That’s successful [as] they are now acquiring more knowledge and more coursework as they complete that degree. You can kind of see the flow and churn as they move through the institution, which is very important. It’s not this lockstep fashion that perhaps the traditional metrics looked at, [where students] come in from high school and [graduate] in four years.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of increasing access to higher education for adults and the ways institutions and governments might make that happen?

AH: I think a critical component is leadership and focusing light on this population regionally and within the state. We’re fortunate in the University of Maine System that our chancellor and the board of trustees are very focused on degree completion by Maine citizens and, of course, that’s reflected in the institutional efforts to improve and increase retention.

But we’re fortunate also that the governor of Maine has been focused on this initiative and there appears to be pretty broad-based support within the legislature and there are efforts underway to help increase, at the state level, the scholarship funds available for Maine students who are adults, who are making process steadily, but in a different fashion from, as Greg pointed out, traditional students who are on campus environments that are contained and often residential.