More adult students? Please, no

Don’t send more adults to college, unless they’re prepared to complete a degree, writes Frank Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio University, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. Donoghue is responding to Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College,which predicts a shortage of high-school graduates in the coming years. To meet workforce needs, more adults must earn postsecondary credentials, the report concludes.

First, the notion that all Americans are entitled to a college education, regardless of their level of preparation, the degree of their intellectual curiosity, and, most basically, their ability to afford increasing tuition, is increasingly unreasonable.

. . . Second, the report calls for adult college students to finish their degrees. Across the board, the U.S. college-graduation rate currently stands at about 50 percent, according to The New York Times. Among other wealthy nations, only Italy has a lower graduation rate. That statistic is appalling enough, but further details are even worse: just 20 percent of first-time students at public community colleges get a degree or certificate within three years.

Non-traditional students, often juggling jobs and family duties, are even less likely to earn a degree, the professor points out. Instead of “a good job in the new global economy,” they’re likely to end up with no degree and lots of debt.

Finally, since traditional colleges and universities don’t have the capacity to educate an influx of adult students, many will go to for-profit colleges, which can expand quickly and tailor their classes for this market.

From the moment that Apollo Group (parent company of the University of Phoenix) went public in 1994, for-profit colleges have made higher education extremely convenient (course offerings year round, a vast online-learning infrastructure). These features are ideally suited to adult students, most of whom are likely working full-time and really need that convenience.

For-profit college students pay much more in tuition. If they try and fail, they’re more likely to be stuck with unaffordable debt. And these are high-risk students.

The completion rate for two-year for-profit certificate and degree programs is much higher than the community college graduation rate. If adult students are steered toward realistic goals, success rates will be high. That probably means a certificate in welding skills, not an unattainable bachelor’s degree.


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[...] Don’t encourage more adults to enroll in college classes, unless they’re prepared to ear…, a college professor writes. Graduation rates are very low for adult students. [...]

Older Student

As former older student, I take offense to both the tone and ageism of Professor’s Donoghue’s Chronicle piece. But, as an Ivy League alumnus and member of Phi Beta Kappa, I find his lack of scholarship on this subject to be reprehensible.

If Professor Donoghue were a social scientist and not an English professor, he might have been a lot less flip with his interpretation of the facts.

Indeed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, older students actually perform better than their traditionally aged peers. While only 12.1-percent of 19-23 year-olds received “Mostly A’s” in the 2007-08 “Profile of Undergraduate Students,” 23.1-percent of 30-39 year-olds and 32.9-percent of students over 40 received such grades. Moreover, while only 3.8-percent of students over 40, and 6.1-percent of 30-39 year-olds, received “Mostly C’s and D’s,” 8.6-percent of their traditionally-aged peers were in danger of flunking out.

The study also reveals that 19.8-percent of students who worked full-time received “mostly A’s,” while only 16.8-percent off their non-working, presumably younger peers produced the same grades.

Furthermore, the study reveals older students, as a population, averaged triple the amount of community service hours as their traditionally aged peers.

While Professor Donoghue may be correct in asserting that the graduation rates for older students are lower, often due to a combination of family and work obligations, disability, and financial challenges, his comment “…it’s so clear that very few of them[nontraditional students] will actually complete a degree program and therefore put themselves in a position for a good job in the new global economy,” fails to recognize that it would only take a 20-percent rate by the 5.5 million older students currently in 2-4 postsecondary institutions to add another 1.1 million college graduates to our society.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2007–08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:08); Table 2.3.—Percentage distribution of undergraduates, by their average grades and selected institutional and student characteristics: 2007–08

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