Highlights from UPCEA MEMS 2021: Retention strategies for working adults

Without appropriate support, students over the age of 25 are 70% less likely to persist in the academic journey than their younger counterparts. Guild was proud to present our findings on supporting retention and persistence for working adult learners alongside Guild Partner Wilmington University at UPCEA’s 2021 MEMS (Marketing, Enrollment Management, Student Success) Conference. 

Ashley Cline, Lead Data Scientist at Guild Education was joined by Eileen Donnelly, Vice President of Enrollment Management, at Wilmington University to discuss factors that strongly influence persistence and retention for working adult students*, along with specific examples of interventions from Wilmington University. 

Approaching Persistence

Persistence can be thought of in terms of structure, motivation, and engagement factors. It’s oversimplifying to think of student persistence in terms of the academic experience alone because working adult learners balance education alongside work and life. In concert, these fluid situations and experiences can influence one another. 

One of my students connected with me after failing several courses. He came to the call completely defeated, ready to drop out and said, ‘School just isn’t for me.’ I simply asked, ‘Why do you feel that way?’ and he went on to tell me about his family, his career, and the demands of taking care of his elderly mother. His challenges came from life, not academics, and through our conversation he identified that completing this degree was important to him and a long-term goal. We scheduled weekly coaching calls and over several terms his grades improved and he is now excelling through his program.”

– Guild Education Student Success Coach

While interrelated, examining these factors independently can help illustrate specific approaches that institutions can undertake to meet students where they are and improve retention.

Understanding Structural Factors of Persistence

Wealth, time poverty, and childcare responsibilities are inversely correlated with persistence. Typically, the more structural barriers a student faces, the less likely they are to persist. For example, students from high-wealth families (top income quartile) are roughly twice as likely as students from low-wealth families (bottom income quartile) to persist. But wealth isn’t the only resource with a strong connection to retention: shredded time is also a significant structural barrier. Students who are caregivers have persistence rates that are 10% lower than those without caregiving responsibilities.  

What helps address structural barriers?

Credit for Prior Learning (C4PL) can help students reduce both time and cost barriers. Donnelly points toward Wilmington University’s process for credit for prior learning, which allows industry-recognized certifications, work-based training, and professional licenses to provide students with more opportunities to have their prior learning validated and earn academic credit. “Our data have shown that the more credits students have when coming to Wilmington University, the more likely they are to persist and graduate.”

Understanding Motivation Factors of Persistence

Motivation can be thought of in terms of both extrinsic and intrinsic influencers. Extrinsic motivations refer to external returns on an educational investment, such as making a family-sustaining wage, or being a role model for those in their family. Intrinsic motivation refers to internal, less quantifiable motivations for learning, such as personal growth or the desire to gain knowledge. While extrinsic motivations are very common reasons for students to enroll, extrinsic motivation alone often isn’t enough to support long-term persistence: 74% of those with extrinsic motivation stopped out or transferred. 

What helps students stay motivated?

The reason students enroll in a program may not ultimately be the primary motivator for them to persist. Guild researchers found that language aligned with a perseverance mindset meant students were likelier to stay enrolled. It is therefore critical that programs are intentional about helping students interpret and contextualize their challenges to educational attainment. “It’s important to not only help students identify their goals at the beginning of their journey,” Kline says, “but to also continually define and articulate their motivations for persisting in their programs over time.”

Donnelly shares that Wilmington University provides a map to help students plan their program for every term all the way through to education, as part of the university’s Guided Pathways implementation. Along with one-on-one support from advisors, the maps help students stay on track, and understand what is needed in order to graduate. Students who meet with advisors and go over education plans have higher retention rates. 

Understanding Engagement Factors of Persistence

It’s a mistake to assume that older students don’t care or need to feel like they’re part of a community in order to persist. 

  • 60% of students who feel a part of a community are merely likely to be persisting at 12 months. 
  • 20% of students who feel connected to their peers are more likely to be persisting at 12 months. 

What helps students stay engaged?

In an online setting, the right suite of platforms and learning tools is essential for helping students interact with content and instructors. Donnelly points to tools like VoiceThread, which lets instructors upload content for students to interact with via audio, video, or text. It also allows for specific content design that enables students to upload assignments for feedback from instructors and classmates via audio, video, and text, adding vibrance to the online classroom and even asynchronous peer feedback. Other tools, such as Kaltura let instructors share lessons for students to watch and rewatch when they have time in their schedules to focus and engage with the content. 

Wilmington University also provides extensive professional development for instructors so they have fluency with the tools. 

View the presentation in its entirety to learn more about how to measure persistence, predict non-persistence, and view details of Wilmington University’s Guided Pathways System (GPS) and how it supports each factor of student retention and persistence.