6 Previous Step of Next Step  6

A Better Deal for Returning Adults

Increase degree attainment by inviting adult learners back to complete their education, providing a redesigned system that offers accelerated courses, year-round enrollment and predictable schedules that fit their busy lives. Give credit for prior learning and experience and additional support to help students navigate the system.



The attainment goals set by state and national leaders cannot be met unless significantly more adults and other nontraditional students return to higher education and complete a degree or credential. Unfortunately, these students have been asked to choose between making life-altering sacrifices to attend full time or attending part time with greater long-term costs and a much lower chance of ever graduating. These students need A Better Deal — assurances that they can progress to their degree faster with accelerated courses, year-round enrollment, and schedules that work with their lives. They need a head start through an embedded process that awards college credit for previous learning and a dedicated coach to help them when life gets in the way.

Initially, I came back to higher education because of job security. However, I realized my focus on graduating is less about my career and more about setting and achieving an ambitious goal for myself.


Graduate, University of Louisville

Know the Problem

Adults are much more likely to attend college part time, because it is the only way they can balance their education with their other obligations. Students take 1-2 courses at a time. They struggle to find courses that work with their schedules. They spend time in class for things they have already learned from their other experiences. And unlike traditional students, adults are all but assured that life will at times get in the way of their studies. When they respond by withdrawing from classes or taking semesters off, this further imperils their path to graduation. Ultimately, these students are trying to navigate a system that was not built for them and the complexity of their lives.

1-to 2- Year Certificate

2-Year Associate

4-Year Bachelor's (All Other)

4-Year Bachelor's (Highest Research)

1-to 2- Year Certificate

2-Year Associate

4-Year Bachelor's (All Other)

4-Year Bachelor's (Highest Research)

African American





DSData Suppressed

NANot Applicable

DUData Unavailable

1-to 2- Year Certificate

2-Year Associate

4-Year Bachelor's (All Other)

4-Year Bachelor's (Highest Research)

1-to 2- Year Certificate

2-Year Associate

4-Year Bachelor's (All Other)

4-Year Bachelor's (Highest Research)

Take Action

Students who take 1-2 classes at a time can still graduate on time if those courses are delivered on an accelerated timeline. Providing A Better Deal for Returning Adults requires an efficient path to graduation including a redesigned schedule with shorter terms, year-round enrollment, and consistent time blocks. Students reach graduation day faster because the institution proactively grants credit upon entry for their previous learning and experience. Students have a trusted coach to help them navigate the institution’s policies and processes and deal with external issues that arise. Institutions put this Better Deal in place, then work with their state leaders and employer community to invite students back to a postsecondary system – one that is now built for them.

  • Redesigned Schedules

    Redesigned Schedules

    Create accelerated terms and consistent, year-round schedules that lead to on-time graduation. Decide when to teach courses based on when students need them instead of when faculty want to teach them.

  • Credit for Competency

    Credit for Competency

    Design a standard, embedded process through which students are awarded college credit for the college-level, credit-worthy knowledge they possess when they start the program. Minimize the cost of this process and maximize the avenues for demonstrating this knowledge.

  • Coaching


    Assign each returning adult student with a coach that communicates regularly and builds a trusting relationship. The coach helps students re-enroll, navigate the institution’s policies and procedures, craft career plans, and find the best way through life events that threaten college completion.

  • Re-Engagement


    Once these elements are in place, convene state leaders, institutional leaders and employers to reach out to adults in the community – with some college or no college – and invite them to return. Make it clear that these institutions have changed, and now offer a Better Deal for Returning Adults.

Implementation Guide


If our young people are thought of as “our future,” then our adult population is our present. It is important that adults reach higher levels of attainment to meet workforce needs and create better lives for themselves and their families.


Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

High Costs, Uncertain Benefits

AEI: What do Americans without a degree think about college?

  • Know the Problem

    To meet the goal of 60% postsecondary attainment that is needed to meet economic demand, over 16 million more Americans will need to complete a degree or credential – and more than 11 million of those must be returning adults. Standing in the way of this progress are several real and perceived barriers stemming from the fact that higher education was not built to serve these students.


    Strategic Plan for 2017 to 2020

    Lumina Foundation

    A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College

    Public Agenda, sponsored by The Kresge Foundation, studies why some adults are considering going (back) to college and the challenges they think they'll face once they enroll.

  • Generate Buy In

    Articulate a clear case for the need to attract more adults and serve them better. Use data and evidence whenever possible. Have faculty who teach adults share with faculty who don’t why they love teaching these students. But don’t stop with colleges. Bring politicians, employers, and community leaders into the discussion to tackle the workforce skills gap together.


    Still questioning whether college is worth it? Read this.

    Washington Post

    Boosting Nontraditional Learners

    Colleges should consider accepting alternative-credit courses.

  • Create an Action Plan

    Convene institutions, determine which are willing and ready to offer a Better Deal for Returning Adults, and develop a plan for scale. Commit to specific strategies and follow the path forged by those leading the work.


    Return and Complete: Guidance for Indiana’s Public Colleges and Universities

    For direct student outreach.

    4 Ways Companies Can Fix the Employment Skills Gap

    How can job-seeking recent grads connect with companies?



Successfully implementing A Better Deal for Returning Adults requires a willingness to redesign some of the fundamental building blocks of a college degree. Use the experience of leading innovators to model a better way to schedule, award credit, and support adult students en route to graduation.


B.S. in Organizational Leadership and Learning

University of Louisville

Finish Line Program at University of Memphis

Assisting students who have completed 90 or more credit hours.

  • Design the Strategy

    Rethinking higher education for adults requires significant attention to design of both the policy and practices. It takes an intentional focus on your student-level data for current and former students. Use these resources to focus your efforts on the decisions you will need to make to design an effective model for returning adults.


    Adult College Completion in the 21st Century: What We Know and What We Don't

    Higher Ed Insight

    A Promising Model to Boost Retention for Part-Time Students

    This issue brief details the evolution of learning communities at Bunker Hill Community College and considers the successes and shortcomings of each type.

  • Communicate with Stakeholders

    Colleges and universities are only one audience important to successful adult college completion. A comprehensive communications strategy that reaches potential returners through their employers and their communities is the only way to truly re-engage them at scale and let them know that higher education is now offering A Better Deal.


    You Can. Go Back. Website

    Website from Learn More Indiana to help adults connect with educational opportunities.

    8-Week Advantage: Great Falls College MSU

    Great Falls College MSU is implementing 8-week block scheduling to better serve students.

  • Implement the Strategy

    Provide professional development and training opportunities for all stakeholders involved in implementation of the reform and stick to the timeline developed by the implementation teams. Document the implementation and provide opportunities for stakeholders to connect and problem solve throughout the execution of the strategy.


    Bridging the Gap to Graduation with Prior Learning Assessment

    Presentation on PLA at University of Louisville.

    CCA Alliance Compact and Scaling Standards

    Guidance on our work, our Alliance, and effective implementation.



Successful implementation requires consistent evaluation of progress and outcomes against metrics that serve as baselines. Implementation leaders should survey participating institutions to document strategies, timelines to scale and technical assistance needs. Qualitative data should also be collected from implementers and students.


Searching for Our Lost Associate’s Degrees: Project Win-Win at the Finish Line

Institute for Higher Education Policy

You Can. Go Back. - A Retrospective on Indiana’s Efforts

Analysis evaluates the various aspects of the project.

  • Measure

    Adult learners are encompassing an increasing percentage of the total enrollment in today’s colleges and universities, however, they continue to be the least understood, the most difficult to recruit, and the least likely to persist. While the complexities of traditional student departure decisions have been studied extensively, the same cannot be said for adult student success. Understanding how entry/background, internal campus/academic environment, and external environment variables interact can assist colleges and universities identify at-risk students and implement interventions that support adult students, who are more likely to leave an institution. Additional research can also help local and state officials identify new policies that promote adult student persistence to improve bachelor degree attainment rates. As changes in the global marketplace drive adult students back into the classroom, it is necessary that institutions of higher learning provide appropriate services and resources to ensure these adults attain a baccalaureate degree.


    You Can. Go Back. Overview

    Overview of Indiana's You Can. Go Back. Initiative, including data.

    Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates - Fall '10 Cohort

    National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

  • Refine the Implementation

    With the structures of coaching, redesigned schedules and embedded credit for competency in place, faculty can focus on the continuous improvement of their teaching methods in the classroom, understanding that adults learn differently.


    The Power of a Promise: Implications Importance of Adult Promise Programs

    Since 2016, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) has explored the interest in and feasibility of implementing “promise-type” aid programs for students over the age of 25.

    Student Success for Adult Learners

    Report on the condition of higher education in Ohio.

  • Sustain the Strategy

    Don’t keep the evaluation data private – share it broadly with stakeholders to quantify success. Combine these results with success stories, elevating the voices of the graduates that benefitted from these efforts. Use anecdotes and data together to convince policymakers to sustain the reforms though policy.


    The Graduate Network: Comebackers

    Stories of Comebackers, adults with some college credit but no degree, and how they made a comeback!

    Finish Line - Students Speak

    University of Memphis: Finish Line Program students react to their experiences.


Support Community

Connect with Content Experts

Below are state and institutional leaders from around the country who are working to provide A Better Deal for Returning Adults. Use the form below to ask questions and receive expert guidance for your own implementation efforts.

Join the Movement!

Help us boost student success and college completion for millions of Americans, and advance the rate of change needed to meet state and national attainment goals. Sign up for updates here.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Reset Password

Back to Log In
Join CCA


Do this later

What interests you?

15 to Finish

Boost the number of students who are on track for on-time graduation by encouraging enrollment in 15 credits each semester (30 credits per year, including summers). Financial aid dollars, as well as institutional process and practice, should support that standard.

Math Pathways

Ensure all students enroll in and complete gateway math in their first year by designing math courses that are aligned with the skills students need for their chosen program of study.

Corequisite Support

Increase gateway course completion within the first year by enrolling entering students into the college-level math and English courses, providing those who need additional help a concurrent course or lab that offers just-in-time academic support.

Momentum Year

Build momentum so students meet first-year benchmarks: informed choice of meta major or major, enrollment in 30 credits with nine in the program of study and completion of gateway courses. Provide early support and guidance for decision making, using interest assessments and labor-market data.

Academic Maps with Proactive Advising

Default students onto highly-structured academic maps that include 15 credits per semester (or 30 per year), indicate milestone and pre-requisite courses, and empower advisors to effectively monitor progress and provide intervention as needed.

A Better Deal for Returning Adults

Increase degree attainment by inviting adult learners back to complete their education, providing a redesigned system that offers accelerated courses, year-round enrollment and predictable schedules. Give credit for prior learning and experience and additional support to help students navigate the system.

Do this later

Create your Profile

Allow logged in users to see my phone number

(No file chosen)
.jpg, .gif and .png Max file size 700K
For best quality use a 330x330 pixel image.