How Community Colleges Can Bring Adults Back to Campus


Community college enrollment has significantly declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between the spring 2020 term and the spring 2022 term, nationwide community college enrollment declined by nearly 17 percent. This alarming trend poses a threat to the well-being of community colleges and the students they serve, which includes more than half of all undergraduate students from low-income families.

Community colleges play an important role in serving adult learners. In 2019, more than 1.7 million students over the age of 25 were enrolled at public two-year colleges. A group of students disproportionately composed of people of color and people with low incomes, adult students have experienced enrollment declines that have been larger at community colleges than in any other sector of higher education.

To help address this critical problem, the Center on Education & Labor at New America partnered with six community colleges, and the technical assistance provider Student Ready Strategies (SRS), to help re-enroll adult students who have stopped out of college since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These colleges are:

●     Harry S Truman College - one of the City Colleges of Chicago

●     Prairie State College

●     Southwestern Oregon Community College

●     Mt. Hood Community College

●     Delgado Community College

●     Fletcher Technical Community College

Over the course of 18 months, researchers at New America and technical assistance providers at SRS worked with this cohort of colleges on how institutions can re-enroll adult learners who stopped out since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team visited each campus, conducted focus groups with faculty, staff and administrators, completed qualitative interviews with current and stopped-out students, and reviewed institutional policies and procedures relating to adult student success. Throughout these efforts, five clear themes emerged. To better recruit, enroll, and re-enroll adult students community colleges should:

Better Communicate with their Adult Students

Community colleges need to craft adult-specific communications that help adults understand the value of a community college education and navigate the steps to enroll in classes. In conversations with institutional leaders and students, we learned that community colleges need to improve their communication with adult learners. To do this, colleges should 1) create a messaging campaign focused on the financial impact of CTE programs, 2) create a central place on their website for returning adults with step by step re-enrollment instructions, 3) ensure their college hires, and communicates the availability of, enrollment navigators, 4) create a set of incentives to entice students to re-enroll.

 Revise Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) Policies

During our research, we found that many stopped out students had been cut off from federal financial aid because of failure to meet satisfactory academic progress. A complete reset of SAP for students who have not been enrolled for a period of time–such as a two or three-year hiatus in enrollment–would allow a substantial number of people to re-enroll in college. However, a SAP reset would require legislative action under the Higher Education Act (HEA). Absent changes to the HEA, community colleges should improve their communications with students who fail to make SAP, simplify the SAP appeals process, and analyze the patterns of those affected by SAP by race, gender, Pell status, and other demographic factors.

 Increase Course & Program Flexibility

Given that the vast majority of adult students work, and many adult students have to balance school, employment, and caregiving responsibilities, adult learners face obstacles to attending in-person classes that occur during traditional work hours. To help meet adults’ educational needs, community colleges should offer flexible course schedules, both in terms of when courses are offered and through which modality they are taught. Community colleges should increase the number of courses taught on nights, weekends, and through HyFlexmodality - that is, courses that can be taken virtually or in-person.

Improve Advising to Offer More Holistic Supports

Community colleges should establish case management systems for both enrollment and student advising. In doing so, colleges can create holistic plans to drive student success while increasing the number of students they serve. Proactive case management advising–that starts even before students enroll in classes–can improve student persistence rates and can therefore increase enrollment.

Help Students Access and Afford their Basic needs

Student basic needs–which include housing, food, transportation, healthcare, and child care–are so substantial that they are often more expensive than the cost of tuition. Students who cannot afford their basic needs often struggle to complete college, making basic needs insecurity a significant threat to student persistence. If community colleges employ research-backed strategies to help students access and afford their basic needs - like by hiring benefits navigators to coordinate basic needs supports, reviewing institutional financial aid policies, and offering students free resources like technology and food - they will be well positioned to re-enroll adult learners.

 It’s time for community colleges nationwide to bring adults back to campus. By using this playbook, colleges can re-enroll, and better serve adult students. Given the urgency of this problem, there’s no time to waste.

Chris Geary is a Senior Policy Analyst at New America

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline