Focus on the Presidency: Helping Students Finish What They Start

By Elaine P. Maimon    //    Volume 24,  Number 6   //    November/December 2016

Several years ago, American higher education was challenged by Lumina Foundation to play a major role in increasing the proportion of Americans with a high-quality college degree to 60 percent by 2025. One of the most vital pieces in this attainment puzzle is adult students—particularly those who start a degree program and then stop out. These students have been central to the mission of my institution, Governors State University (GSU), since our founding in 1969, leading us to be designated a “completion college” by Lumina Foundation.

For various reasons, many students begin college and then walk away, depriving themselves of the kind of learning all college presidents and boards know is important for an informed citizenry. First-generation students often lack the necessary financial, social, and academic support systems. Many get mired in remediation—for example, struggling through calculus, when recent research shows that a top-notch statistics course is more relevant to social science and humanities majors, and fulfills core requirements, too.

Every institution must reach out to adult students. But completion colleges have years of experience in offering cost-effective routes for students with substantial amounts of prior credits and capabilities that may translate into credit-bearing e- portfolios (digital portfolios of the student’s achievements). The completion colleges share the following characteristics:

  • A high proportion (more than half) of students age 25 and older
  • Regional accreditation, ensuring the highest standards
  • Targeted programs in online and hybrid formats
  • Innovative paths to credentials, including the Degree Qualifications Profile (a post-secondary learning outcomes framework that specifies what students should know) and e-portfolios
  • Use of prior-learning assessment
  • Streamlined transfer and integration of credits earned at other colleges and universities

Completion colleges are committed to high standards of quality. Empty credentials are not our goal. The diploma must be a symbol for real achievement in critical thinking and communication, as well as in specialized skills within the major.

Governors State University admitted its first freshman class in 2014. Our decades of experience with returning adults helped us to create a full-time freshman program designed to help more students complete degrees on their first try. National research shows that the top reason that students drop out is financial. First-generation students simply don’t know about Pell grants, state grants, and other sources of financial assistance—money that doesn’t have to be paid back. To address this issue, GSU offers help in financial literacy for students and their families, including support for filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

We also know that some students leave college because they don’t have a sense of belonging. Peer mentors who are themselves first-generation college students can make a real difference, as they have at GSU. They don’t have to guess what the freshmen don’t know because they’ve been there. We created the Center for the Junior Year to assist students in making informed choices about majors and careers. Faculty members have designed cornerstone courses in each major to bring homegrown and transfer students together to ask research and ethical questions about the major.

Our returning adults themselves are eager to help our freshmen. In 2014, many of our first freshmen were so happy in our new student residence, Prairie Place, that they didn’t want to venture outside— even to attend classes. When the 42-year-old vice president of our student senate heard about this, he knocked on doors and said, “If you don’t attend class, I guarantee that you will flunk out. GSU will be there for you when you are 42 like me and decide to return to school, but, trust me, it will be much harder. Get yourself to class!”

These initiatives have proven successful at Governors State University and allowed us to help facilitate success for returning adult students. I encourage my colleagues to open conversation with their boards on ways to welcome adults into our universities, thereby fulfilling our shared goal of a better-educated society.

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