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Re-Enroll Adults with Some College and No Degree

Create a statewide program to identify adults with college credit but no postsecondary credential and encourage them to re-enroll and complete their degree or credential

Create Smarter

To meet postsecondary attainment goals, states need to target adults, specifically those who have earned college credits but have not completed a postsecondary credential. States and institutions that develop better capacity through policy and practice to identify those students will re-engage them in degree programs and support them through completion. Adult learners generally are those 25 years and older who are several years removed from formal education and seeking an undergraduate degree or credential that will improve their employment prospects and economic security. Some want to gain a better position on their current career paths, while others seek new opportunities. The population of potential adult learners also includes military veterans making the transition to civilian life and work. Institutions and states may want to identify and enroll prior students who completed at least half the credits needed for a degree but never finished. Students with significant numbers of credits may be easier to engage and help over the finish line.

Institutions and states are experimenting with a variety of approaches to engage adult learners and help them overcome their challenges, including reverse transfer of credits from a four-year baccalaureate institution to an associate degree or credential program; competency-based degree programs;  online and distance learning; and other low-cost, flexible options (such as prior learning assessment). A commonality across all these approaches is an effort to remove barriers that often prevent adults with some college credits from completing a credential or degree program. The most common barriers include limited time, work and family responsibilities, and cost.

The Adult College Completion Network, a project of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), suggests a number of strategies state higher education leaders can use to begin to re-engage adult learners with some credit but no degree, including:

  • improving data collection;
  • creating partnerships between employers and higher education institutions;
  • developing communications and marketing campaigns;
  • improving credit transfer policies; and
  • developing criteria and processes for assessing prior learning and awarding credit.

In another project, Non-traditional No More (NTNM), WICHE worked with higher education leaders in six states—Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota and South Dakota—to improve policies and practices to increase adult degree completion. The states’ efforts focused on identifying adults with prior college credits and identifying pathways to completion.

Several states have completion colleges, institutions that serve working adults with prior college credit but no degree. Many completion colleges have existed for decades and have an established track record of successfully supporting adults to completion. Completion colleges are primarily focused on bachelor’s degree programs, and more than half of their students are adults over the age of 25. These institutions make extensive use of online learning and prior learning assessment for awarding credit and typically have facilitated transfer of credits from other institutions.

Student Veterans Among Adult Learners Seeking Degrees

Another category of adults that states have identified for postsecondary enrollment are veterans and active members of the military looking to complete a degree or transition to a new career path. The GAO estimates that since 2008 and the enactment of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (Post-9/11 GI Bill), the number of veterans receiving education benefits has almost doubled to more than 1 million in Fiscal Year 2013. The use of those benefits will continue to grow — as the number of post-9/11 veterans is expected to increase to more than 5 million by 2020.

Student Veterans of America’s Million Records Project is an initiative, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, to better assess student veterans’ progress through and completion of postsecondary programs. Initial findings indicate that more than half of veterans using Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010 completed a degree or certificate programs, which is about the same rate as traditional students and a higher rate than other nontraditional students. Further, the majority of these student veterans complete their programs within four to five years.

A 2014 Change magazine article described the challenges student veterans face. Veterans are much like other nontraditional students in that they are not enrolling in postsecondary education directly after high school but usually after several years away from formal education. Veterans face many of the same challenges related to balancing careers and family with education, and even with the availability of veterans’ education benefits, cost remains a real concern. Many are working on transitioning from active duty service to civilian life and seeking a new career path.

CAEL has gathered information on best practices, and identifies policies in several areas that state and higher education leaders can consider:

  • Outreach and information;
  • Recognition of existing skills and competencies;
  • Recognition of veterans’ distinct needs and contributions;
  • Support from the institution and among other student veterans and adult students;
  • Transition support;
  • Administrative policies and procedures, including reduced tuition and fees and alternative admissions requirements; and
  • Support for disabilities and mental health issues.


United States Census Bureau data cited by the Adult College Completion Network reveal that 36 million Americans, or 22 percent of adults, have earned some college credit but no degree. Less is known about how many credits these individuals completed. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that just over one-third of them, somewhere between 12 million and 17 million adults, have earned at least 60 credits. Individual states and institutions are starting to collect these data. South Dakota requires institutions to report such data for a completion metric, which is linked to its performance-funding formula and now includes returning adults.

The lack of data about returning adults and their success makes it difficult to study the impact of various initiatives aimed at identifying, enrolling and improving completion rates among this population. Research by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) indicates that awarding credit for prior learning has a positive impact on adult student persistence and completion. A report of the Pennsylvania Transfer and Articulation Center found that following implementation of state efforts to ease credit transfer, transfers between public two-year and four-year institutions increased by 13 percent and students saved millions of dollars each year.

A December 2014 issue paper, written by Postsecondary Analytics, examined state completion colleges as a strategy for supporting completion among adults with some college credit but no degree. The paper reports that enrollment at these institutions grew 111 percent between 1987-88 and 2012-23. In addition, completion colleges have among the lowest expenditures of public four-year institutions on a cost-per-degree basis. According to the brief, the completion colleges studied spend an average of $17,000 to $43,000 for each degree awarded, compared with an average of $61,000 among public four-year institutions in the United States. The paper also found that if completion colleges expanded to serve the U.S. working age market at the level that Thomas Edison State College has served its New Jersey market, degrees awarded could increase by more than 80,000 per year, or 800,000 within a ten-year period, and at a potential cost savings of $36 billion.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.

Credit When It’s Due 

Through the Credit When It’s Due project, a group of five national foundations awarded $6.4 million in grants to projects in 12 states to support efforts to expand reverse transfer programs that allow students to transfer credits earned at a four-year institution “back” to a two-year institution in order to earn an associate degree. The programs can be particularly helpful to adult learners who started but never completed a four-year degree or who may have transferred to a four-year institution before they completed an associate degree. The 12 states where partnerships received grants are Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Credit When It’s Due is just one approach. Other states, such as Georgia and Texas, are using different strategies to re-engage working adults with some college credit but no degree.

State Completion Colleges

In the 1970s, several states established completion colleges to help support degree completion among adults, particularly those who had earned some college credit but had never completed a degree program. Among the earliest state completion colleges were Charter Oak State College in Connecticut, Governors State University in Illinois, Granite State College in New Hampshire, Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, and Empire State College in New York, More recently, Colorado established Colorado State University’s Global Campus specifically to serve adults, and in 2014, the online campus also started enrolling first-time freshmen.


Arkansas has enacted and implemented several initiatives aimed at helping more adults access and attain postsecondary credentials. State leaders enacted policies that created incentives for institutions to better serve more adults ready to return to postsecondary education. When Arkansas created its merit-based scholarship program, the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, also known as the Lottery Scholarship, lawmakers set aside 15 percent (later increased to 20 percent) for nontraditional students. A WICHE report about lessons from the Non-traditional No More project notes that in the 2010-2011 school year, 5,000 nontraditional Arkansas students received scholarships, making it more affordable to return to college. State leaders also made changes to and increased funding in other state financial aid programs—including a need-based aid program for working adults and one for single parents—to make them more available and useful to returning adult learners. Overall, the WICHE report notes, the state estimates that it will provide adult learners with an additional $140 million in aid between 2010 and 2020.

The Arkansas Department of Higher Education  has implemented several other initiatives aimed at reaching adult learners and re-engaging them in degree programs, including marketing and outreach strategies, a consortium of adult-ready institutions, adult student concierges who can answer questions and provide information specifically to returning adults, and new policies aimed at making credit transfer easier. In 2009, state lawmakers passed Act 182, which made it easier to transfer credits from a two-year to a four-year institution and from one public four-year to another. In 2012, a partnership among two-year and four-year institutions received a grant through the “Credit When It’s Due” project to support efforts to create a fully automated reverse transfer system. Arkansas also continues to work on improving its statewide data system so that it will be able to identify and track returning adult students.


In 2012, lawmakers enacted SB 12-045, which provides for the reverse transfer of academic credits and requires that public institutions work together to develop a process by the 2013-2014 school year. Later in 2012, a partnership among the Colorado Department of Higher Education, the Colorado Community College System and several four-year institutions received a grant though the “Credit When It’s Due” project to support the state’s effort  to develop reverse transfer policies and a fully automated reverse transfer system.


Georgia worked with market research and public relations firms to develop messages and a branding strategy for an outreach campaign targeting adults with prior college credit. The market research identified three barriers adults cited that prevented them from returning to college: demands on their time, work and family responsibilities, and concerns about the cost. The outreach campaign directs the target audience to the University System of Georgia’s (USG) adult learners website——which provides information about degree completion programs at 13 USG institutions that are part of an Adult Learning Consortium. Consortium members agree to implement policies and practices that support adult learners, such as prior learning assessment and online courses.


The University of Maine System (UMS) is working to support attainment among the state’s approximately 230,000 adults with some college credit but no degree. Working adults comprise 36 percent of degree-seeking students and 60 percent of part-time students at UMS institutions. In 2013, the UMS Board of Trustees approved the Adult Baccalaureate Completion/Distance Education (ABCDE) Plan to support adult degree completion. Included in the ABCDE initiative are a scholarship for returning adults and additional support services. The Adult Degree Completion Scholarship provides as much as $4,000 per year over eight consecutive semesters for students returning to higher education after an absence of at least three years. The ABCDE initiative also created campus concierges who provide returning adults with assistance as they apply for admission, apply for financial assistance, choose a major, and select and register for courses. In 2013, the legislature appropriated a one-time match of $500,000 to help establish the scholarship program HP 1079 (see page 541).


Minnesota has created a number of policies and programs to support veterans and military service members seeking to complete a degree program. State statute provides for veterans and active service members to be eligible for in-state tuition and directs the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) to accept military training, education and experience for credit per the American Council on Education standards. MNSCU also provides career and education planning services as well as information about benefits and financial aid. MNSCU developed a website that consolidates information for veterans and active service members and created the Veterans Education Transfer System (VETS), an online tool that allows veterans and active service members to determine how their military training can count for credit at the state’s colleges and universities.


In June 2014, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed legislation that seeks to ensure that veterans receive appropriate credit for their military training and experience. The act directs the Ohio Board of Regents to develop uniform standards for awarding college credit at the state’s two-year and four-year institutions. The Board of Regents also must develop a website that provides veterans with information about translating their service to college credit. In addition, state boards that issue occupational licenses must also develop similar uniform standards for recognizing military experience and training. The legislative action grew out of a 2013 Executive Order and subsequent recommendations submitted by the Ohio Board of Regents and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. Ohio also provides financial programs and assistance for veterans and active service members and makes them eligible for in-state tuition.


In 2007, Oklahoma leaders created Reach Higher to serve working adults with some college credit but no degree. The program began by offering a Bachelor of Science degree in organizational leadership at nine regional institutions. The program now offers two associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree at 23 public institutions and offers on-campus and online course options and multiple enrollment periods each year. As of Fall 2014, the program had 794 students enrolled in Reach Higher courses statewide.  Since the programs’ inception 1,490 individuals have earned degrees.


As part of Governor Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, Tennessee leaders created Tennessee Reconnect, which aims to help the state’s 1 million adults with some college complete a postsecondary degree or credential. Tennessee Reconnect offers an online portal with information for adults interested in reenrolling. Further, the Tennessee Reconnect Grant offers returning adults free tuition and fees for completing a program at one of the state’s 27 technical colleges.


The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created Grad TX, a program for adults who have prior college credits and work experience and might be interested in completing a degree. Participating universities offer programs geared specifically to returning adult learners, including flexible scheduling, online courses and customized degree completion programs. The online portal provides returning adults with access to a variety of tools and supports, including an online transfer tool that allows interested individuals to enter their completed coursework and find out how those credits could count toward a degree at a participating institution. The program also offers the assistance of personal academic advisors and financial aid specialists.

Other Resources: Adult Learners
Other Resources: Student Veterans