Campaign encourages adults to finish education

April 7th, 2017

By Ahley Sloboda | The Journal Gazette

For many adults, the time between thinking about returning to school and actually enrolling isn't measured in days, weeks or months.

The yardstick is years, often three, said Jason Bearce, an associate commissioner with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

“Life has a tendency to get in the way,” he said.

The commission is trying to accelerate that process as Indiana works toward increasing the percentage of residents with quality degrees or credentials beyond high school to 60 percent by 2025. The current rate is about 41 percent.

Recent high school graduates can't close the gap alone, Bearce said, so the commission in February 2016 launched the “You Can. Go Back.” campaign, encouraging the approximately 750,000 Hoosiers with some college experience but no degree to finish what they started.

Indiana's economic health is at stake. For employees, campaign organizers say a college degree can provide opportunities for career advancement, better protection against shifts in the economy, higher earnings and greater job security. Organizers also believe a better educated workforce provides employers larger recruitment pools and strengthens the economy and middle class.

The first year netted encouraging results Bearce said, as more than 9,000 recipients of the targeted outreach re-enrolled in school.

More than two dozen colleges and universities statewide – including Indiana Tech, Ivy Tech Community College, and Indiana and Purdue universities – participated as “You Can. Go Back.” partners. The commission coordinated with the schools to identify and promote available programs and incentives, such as online courses, night and weekend classes, and academic credit for work or military experience.

“Indiana Tech is a university for learners of all ages, but, without question, we pride ourselves on being a place that rallies adult learners and gives them the resources to help them finish degree work they may have begun earlier in life,” Matt Bair, marketing and communication director, said in a statement.

“For many of these returning students,” he continued, “the decision to go back to school can be difficult and scary. Many are busy with jobs, children and obligations, and they don't know if they will have the time to commit to school.”

Fort Wayne resident Jill Zwick can attest to how intimidating and overwhelming returning to college can be.

Zwick said she enrolled in IPFW soon after graduating from Wayne High School in 2003 but dropped out after getting married and having triplets. She returned to school twice – first at Indiana Wesleyan University when her children were infants, then at Indiana Tech when they were toddlers – but said a degree remained elusive.

Now, Zwick said, she is a single mother of 11-year-old fifth-graders, and she juggles work with 13 credit hours at IPFW; she returned in spring 2015.

“I always told myself I was going to get my degree,” she said. “I set that goal, and that's the goal that has to be met.”

Through a focus group, Bearce said, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education learned adults who left college early felt bad about failing to earn a degree.

While various methods – including direct mailings, phone calls and social media – were used to contact the campaign's intended population, Bearce said, the underlying message was the same: this time would be different and they would have the support to be successful.

“A lot has changed since you left college,” promotional items stated. “Like you, for instance.”

The initiative is supported by $7.5 million in state aid through the new adult student grant, which is distributed in $1,000 increments on a first-come, first-served basis. More than 5,300 such grants have been awarded so far, the commission reported.

Additionally, the commission reported more than 4,900 students have been connected with participating colleges through its college match website. A Grace College official described it as the beauty of the campaign.

“It really was a service to us and a service to students in helping us find one another,” said Cindy Sisson, Grace College vice president of enrollment management and marketing.

She said it's difficult to say how “You Can. Go Back.” affected Grace's enrollment because students don't always remember where they learned about the college.

Grace did, however, experience a “big jump” in enrollment for the online degree completion program, Sisson said. She said fall 2016 enrollment was 29.2 percent higher than fall 2015.

Huntington University has experienced greater success with its own efforts to re-enroll students who left without completing their degree, Daniel Solms wrote in an email. He is the university's vice president of enrollment management and marketing.

The student success team stays in contact with those students, Solms wrote. The university wishes them well when they're working toward a degree elsewhere, he wrote, and it encourages the others to complete their degree and investigate options with Huntington.

“Each year we get two to three students who return to finish requirements and earn their degree,” Solms wrote. “Sometimes the students have already found success in a career and their degree is more symbolic, while for others it's part of them finding a career.”

A career change motivated Warsaw resident Crystal Barden, 33, to enroll in the massage therapy program at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast. The hours she worked as a restaurant manager weren't conducive to family life. Her children are 10 and 11.

“It was time to make a career change so I could spend more time with my kids,” she said.

Barden, who attended one semester of college after high school graduation, said it was scary to return. She stopped working full time, she said, and she was spending more but making less.

“It's an investment, going back to school,” she said. “ … But I'm very glad I did it.”

She and others who have returned to school said adults considering the option should go for it.

College officials offered more specific advice.

James Cashdollar, the assistant director of online and credit programs at IPFW, said adults should talk with an adviser about options and understand that online courses are just as challenging as being in the classroom.

Chris Cathcart, the vice chancellor for student affairs at Ivy Tech Northeast, said returning students should be honest about their needs and the support they have at home and at school.

Zwick said she couldn't balance work, family and school without her parents' help with her triplets.

“I have a support system there,” she said.

Time management is also key, Zwick said. She does homework after her children's bedtime, sometimes working on it at her sons' baseball practice.

“In the long run,” she said, “they know I'm doing it for the betterment of all four of us.”

Maria Gerber, the University of Saint Francis' director of undergraduate admissions, said adult students tend to be stronger in the classroom because they are motivated by their circumstances or what it means for them and their family.

Although the “You Can. Go Back.” campaign initially targeted adults with college experience, Bearce said the commission is expanding its focus to include students like Alisa Hess, who didn't have that experience.

The 38-year-old Fort Wayne resident said a fear of failure prevented her from attending college, but she decided to enroll at Ivy Tech Northeast after her mother died. Life was too short not to pursue her desire to become a massage therapist, she said.

Hess earned her technical certificate last May and is finishing her associate degree this semester. She said it took her longer to complete the two-year program because work and family prevented her from attending full time.

“I feel like they really want you to succeed here,” Hess said.