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Leveraging the strength of community colleges to re-engage stopped-out adult learners

North Carolinians who complete an associate degree — versus just a high school diploma — will earn an additional $255,000 over their working lifetime, according to a recent Lightcase market analysis. Yet in just this one state, there are more than one million adults with some college, but no degree or certificate. Just over one-third of these residents are under 35 years of age, with just over half of residents between 35 and 64. At the same time, North Carolina community colleges continue to generate a powerful return on investment — both to individual students and the broader state economy. So can North Carolina – and the state’s community colleges – help students who have stopped out return to complete their degrees?

With this question in mind, North Carolina set an ambitious college attainment goal for two-million residents to become college-degreed workers by 2030. As part of reaching this goal, education leaders seek to target the more than one million adults in the state with some college, but no degree or certificate. In response to the shortcoming of 400,000 workers projected by myFutureNC, education leaders formed the NC Reconnect re-enrollment initiative – with funding from and collaboration with the John M. Belk Endowment and Strada Education Network – to help working adults with some college/no degree complete their education and move into higher wage, in-demand skilled jobs – in large part through community college education.

Initial results show positive student impact

Results from the first year of the NC Reconnect initiative were highly promising. Participating campuses have already successfully re-enrolled 978 stopped-out students, for a re-enrollment rate of 7%. Of the students re-enrolled in the Fall 2021 semester, 68% either completed their degree or credential or continued on to the next term. So what has made this work so successful thus far? And how can you incorporate these insights into the work you do at your institution? Check out six success factors that we’ve seen encourage learner re-enrollment and persistence through the NC Reconnect initiative.

Six factors that have contributed to the success of NC Reconnect

1. Collaborative partnership

With a population as large as the North Carolina some college/no credential population – and the vast diversity of support resources needed to adequately reach this population – it was clear to us that community colleges couldn’t, and shouldn’t, tackle the deficit in the state’s credentialed worker population alone. Through the NC Reconnect initiative, we saw leaders come to the table with a collective mindset to help learners reach their full potential. And with active leadership and collaboration from initiative funder John M. Belk Endowment, the stakeholders at every implementation level of the initiative were engaged and actively furthering student support.

By pursuing public/private partnerships, the initiative became larger than a single entity – it became a successful coalition of student supporters. Institutions, funders and outside nonprofit organizations dedicated themselves to set their egos aside, work together to learn from one another, share ideas and create solutions – all to put the needs of the learner first. With a willingness to put the learner population first, institutions can build partnerships with outside entities to scale their reach and impact.

2. Engaged and growth-minded leadership

Re-enrollment success often begins with a shift in focus from the “traditional” learner to encompass adult learner needs and barriers. In our North Carolina re-enrollment work, a champion from each institution stepped forward and worked to rally campus personnel around shifting toward an adult learner-focused institution mindset.Focusing on adult learners can be a cultural shift for many community colleges. Yet this shift is crucial in order to turn significant numbers of some college/no degree adult stop-outs into learners who complete their college courses and obtain their degree or job-specific credentials. Like any large organizational shift, institutional leaders need to follow effective change management strategies as a way to get key faculty and staff members on board. By putting forward an engaged, growth-minded leader to keep tabs on the initiative’s progress – and to champion change in their own institutions – institutions were able to identify and engage with a crucial portion of the some college/no credential population.

3. Proactive outreach to stopped-out students

As part of the NC Reconnect initiative, member institutions partnered with InsideTrack’s specially trained re-enrollment coaches to proactively reach out to identified stopped-out students, rather than waiting for stopped-out students to reach out to the institutions. Coaches work with students to help them clarify goals, identify potential obstacles and stay motivated to persist through challenges. The idea is to re-connect learners not just to institutions, but to their reasons for attending school in the first place. By doing so, learners were able to refocus their efforts on the career opportunities and social mobility to be gained from completing their degrees.In proactively reaching out, InsideTrack coaches let students know that they matter – and that their education journey is worth pursuing.

Through this approach, coaches say to students: “We’re here to check in on your life journey and see where continuing your education can fit into that.” By structuring the conversation around “possibilities” rather than “deficits,” coaches helped the learners jumpstart the thought process for thinking about school again. And by following-up and encouraging learners to take accountability over their education and career goals, coaches help increase the likelihood for a successful transition back to school.

4. Goal-setting — beyond school, to employment

Once re-enrolled students re-started their educational journey, it was critical that partner institutions and success coaches didn’t leave students feeling unsure of next steps and unconnected to their education. Students who have stopped out need a strong and compelling reason to return and complete their journey — and the reason can’t just be “school.” Throughout the NC Reconnect re-enrollment work, coaches and institution student support staff worked with students to make a strong connection between education and career. The message was simple: better skills equals better jobs — a bigger paycheck, a better job, a promotion. With the need and opportunity for skilled workers more critical than ever, supporting students to help them complete their degrees, certifications, licensure and training connects them to a career, which improves their prospects, strengthens their lives and invigorates their communities.

Learn more about the Better Skills, Better Jobs campaign – a campaign in the NC Reconnect initiative that focused specifically on this success factor – in this Adult Learner Guidebook, authored by the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research in the NC State College of Education.

5. Meeting learners where they are

In order to connect with students who have stopped out – and who are often juggling work, family and other commitments — the institution leaders and coaches across the initiative led their communication with a multichannel approach — meaning they tailored their communication to meet students where they’re at, through their preferred methods of communication. Using a mix of phone calls, emails, text messages, video chats — even social media — makes it as easy as possible for students to connect and stay engaged. Another look at the Adult Learner Guidebook provides additional insight into the communication strategies used to connect with these learners, including utilizing mobile-friendly communication templates to reach the vast majority of learners who communicate mostly using their phones. And while the communication channels vary from student to student, the personalized support engaged learners receive from each conversation remains at the core of the impact institutions can have.

6. Grass-roots community efforts

In rural communities and with adult learners, there’s often a stigma attached to higher education – that higher education can be unwelcoming or unfit for some. The reality, however, is that community colleges are all about community — the entire community — and so are their students. By making community support and outreach a key part of the NC Reconnect initiative, the coalition has been able to reach students in ways that traditional “cold calls” or automated outreach can’t. As an example, one-on-one conversations within congregations and other faith-based communities have built motivation for students during the NC Reconnect initiative, especially adult learners, to return to school to complete their education. These conversations are happening outside of school contexts, where learners live much of their lives and where they ask for support in making difficult decisions – and sticking to them.

The success factors detailed here have been instrumental in the initial results thus far. Yet the work on NC Reconnect is just getting started. The re-enrollment effort is now expanding to include retention support for students who return to school, with InsideTrack providing a transformative capacity building program for college staff training that’s designed to build greater institutional capacity – allowing them to make re-enrollment work scalable and sustainable. Large-scale initiative work like NC Reconnect takes a complex, multi-pronged approach that begins with engaged leadership and ends with student support from every angle — including personalized coaching.

“Community colleges are at the core of our workforce development strategy, as they are uniquely positioned to help reach the more than 1 million North Carolinians with some college and no credential. NC Reconnect is not only generating results: it’s providing insights that will enhance our understanding of how to drive re-enrollment at scale.”
— MC Belk Pilon, President and Board Chair, John M. Belk Endowment

Learn more about the expansion happening with NC Reconnect — providing one-on-coaching to even more stopped-out students in order to help them successfully re-enroll, complete their studies and move into a skilled career.

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