The Florida legislature funded Complete Florida in 2013, to serve the 2.8 million Floridians with some college credit and no degree. The University of West Florida Innovation Institute was selected to host and design the program. During the first year of program development, we conducted research about the challenges that returning adults face and the support required to meet their needs. In other words, we started with the true student perspective rather than basing our work on assumptions or what we thought we knew about adult learners.  We discovered that this population is hard to reach, and their challenges are diverse and unique.  We know there is not one single effort that will make the most impact toward increasing degree attainment for people with some college credit and no degree.  Rather, it will take multiple efforts from multiple organizations and institutions to align our work and expand our reach.

Complete Florida works with 14 partner colleges and universities throughout the state to address accessible, affordable and accelerated options for degree completion.  We offer coaching services to help returning adults find a program that best meets their needs and uses the college credits and work experience they have already earned.

We had the opportunity recently to discuss the state and national perspectives on the adult learner at the Florida College Access Network Annual Summit in Orlando.  Complete Florida led the conversation, along with Complete College America and The Graduate! Network, in a session called “Coaching to Completion: Increasing Degree Attainment for Returning Adults.”  The topics of discussion included reaching the returning adult, navigating the path and creating support networks.  We also heard from a panel of students who shared their experiences of returning to college later in life.  We plan to further this discussion and develop more partnerships that streamline this work and create stronger networks to support the students and those who serve them.

Supporting the students and those who serve them starts with communicating the right information at the right time.  Returning adult students have such limited time, as one Complete Florida student attending Florida International University, Cheryl, explained: “The single most valuable thing a coach did for me was related to time and information. Whenever an issue comes up, I can ask my coach to look into it for me. I don’t have to make a lot of phone calls to a lot of different people on campus or send a lot of emails. My coach collects information for me, and then I can weigh options. I would say relevant information in a timely manner is the most powerfully important tool a student can get.”

To understand what to communicate, consider the value of walking in the shoes of students to experience the process of using prior college credit and identifying alternative credit options for the adult learner.  Many returning adults bring extensive knowledge to the table when they re-enter college. Is there a clearly defined method for offering prior learning assessment at institutions?  Often in higher education, we just know things.  But, do we make sure all the right people are in the know?  For example, do faculty, staff and advisors have comprehensive lists, guidelines, deadlines and suggested study materials related to challenge exams or other alternative credit options?  And, when are students made aware of these options?  Is it at the beginning of their re-enrollment or do they have to figure it out on their own later?  All of these factors affect time to completion.

Helping the returning adult learner is much different from guiding a first time in college student. To support returning adults, we have to establish processes that are relevant to their circumstances.

One of the biggest challenges is understanding where they are in relation to completion of a degree that is traditionally designed for students who begin with a blank slate. Complete Florida has taken the outside looking in approach by working with partners to highlight successful methods for reaching the adult learner and offering coaching services that help students anticipate each step along the way.  By examining the way we work from the student point of view, we are able to implement relevant processes that help students finish faster.