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MN Reconnect: New adult learner program at 4 Minnesota State campuses aims to help those with prior credits cross the finish line

“But our goal is, really, to get all colleges in Minnesota on this pathway towards serving adult learners better, especially former students,” said Meredith Fergus, head of the MN Reconnect program.

Inver Hills Community College
Inver Hills Community College is one of four campuses implementing the MN Reconnect program.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

There’s a lot of talk about preparing high schoolers to be college- and career-ready. But simply getting graduates to enroll in college isn’t enough. If those students aren’t equipped to see their postsecondary journey through to completion, they’re saddled with debt and no clear pathway to career advancement.

This is a reality faced by far too many Minnesotans, and a new program seeks to reconnect them to schools in the state.

According to 2015 state data, only 23 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates entering a state university graduated in four years. That number increased to 47 percent for the six-year graduation rate.

The graduation outcomes are better at both the University of Minnesota and private colleges. But for Minnesota’s two-year state colleges, the three-year grad rate was at 29 percent. And the three-year grad plus transfer rate was 49 percent.

Broken down by race, completion rates illustrate some stark disparities in the Minnesota higher education landscape. While 34 percent of white students graduated within three years at Minnesota state colleges in 2015, graduation rates were much lower for every other racial and ethnic group: 19 percent for Hispanic students, 18 percent for American Indian and Asian students, 16 percent for multi-racial students, and 9 percent for black students.

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Looking to help more students who gave college a try but eventually called it quits before attaining any sort of certification, the Minnesota State system and the state Office of Higher Education have partnered to launch MN Reconnect.

The program aims to help adult learners who have some prior credit, but no degree, to re-enroll and finish their postsecondary education. It’s currently piloting at four campuses: Inver Hills Community College, Lake Superior College, Riverland Community College and South Central College.

Through MN Reconnect, the State of Minnesota is making a critical investment in advancing our workforce. Adult learners in Minnesota now have an exciting new option to complete their education, and advance their career,” said Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota Office of Higher Education commissioner, in a press release announcing the new initiative last week.

Tapping into a critical population

Participants in the MN Reconnect program will work one-on-one with a personal adviser, assigned to help them navigate the re-enrollment process from start to finish. There are four of these “navigators” — one stationed at each pilot campus.

These positions are paid for by a $748,000 grant that Minnesota State and the state Office of Higher Education received from the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based foundation that funds higher-education initiatives nationwide. The two entities had recently participated in a workshop hosted by both Lumina and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, a Boulder-based national association of state higher-education government agencies, to talk about ways to better meet the needs of adult learners; they were subsequently invited to apply for funding to bring their shared vision to fruition.

This initial funding will support the new program at all four pilot campuses — selected because they’d already taken initiative to remove barriers for adult learners — throughout this year and into the following academic year. After that, Meredith Fergus, head of the MN Reconnect program with the state Office of Higher Education, says she and her colleagues in this work will look to lobby state officials for continued funding to sustain and expand the program.

“We wanted to work with colleges who had kind of started down that path that we could leverage — so they could teach us what they already knew and we could provide them with some funding that would allow them to get to the next step,” she said. “But our goal is, really, to get all colleges in Minnesota on this pathway towards serving adult learners better, especially former students. But we’re just having to start small because of the limited funding.”

Listing some of the common barriers that these four campuses have been making more of a concerted effort to address, Fergus pointed to evening financial aid office hours, on-campus child care, transportation assistance, a simple  process for acquiring credit for prior learning, and the opportunity to enroll in a year’s worth of coursework at the start of the year, so working students can better plan for child care and transportation.

She talks about how MN Reconnect has the potential to help meet both the needs of adult learners and the state’s employment needs. But she’s also focused on using this program as a way to meet the state’s educational achievement goal. In 2015, the state Legislature enacted a goal that 70 percent of Minnesotans ages 25 to 44 should have a postsecondary credential by 2025.

To get there, the state is paying greater attention to the approximately 115,000-140,000 Minnesotans in that age bracket who dropped out of college — who have some credits but no degree, no certificate, Fergus said.  

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“We saw that as a primary population that we could tap into, to get them to come back to college, finish their program — whether it’s the one they first started, or it’s the one most applicable to their job now — and actually have a quick win on making progress towards our educational achievement goal,” she said. “Furthermore, we know that students of color are actually more likely to drop out of college than white students, and low-income students are more likely to drop out than upper-income students. So by focusing on dropouts, we can also target individuals of color, as well as low-income students, to help get them back in and get that certificate or degree, which will help them, in terms of economic outcome.”

To recruit participants for the MN Reconnect program, the state Office of Higher Education is helping all four pilot campuses market the program. Program staff are targeting adults between the ages of 25 and 44 who have been out of college for at least two years, had earned at least 15 credits, and are interested in re-enrolling to earn a certificate, diploma or associate degree through one of the four participating colleges.

Adults with prior credit but no certification who don’t fall within these parameters are still encouraged to apply and participate, Fergus says. That includes those who may have studied at a college outside of Minnesota, or outside of the Minnesota State system. It’s just that these folks won’t be receiving the direct invitations to apply that dropouts from the four participating campuses have already begun receiving.

Removing barriers

As the first to fill its new MN Reconnect navigator position, Inver Hills Community College was able to enroll its initial cohort of participants at the start of the fall semester. The campus currently has about 70 students enrolled, with more lined up to enroll in the spring semester. It’s a strong start toward hitting the 125 students-per-campus goal minimum set by the state Office of Higher Education.

Heidi Thury, the college’s on-site navigator, has been working on campus for the last seven years and is familiar with the college’s prior-existing adult learner initiatives. While she’ll spend the bulk of her time doing one-on-one advising with program participants, she’ll also be looking to enhance programs that support adult learners and address policies that continue to act as barriers for this particular student population.

For instance, she says Inver Hills Community College already has a pretty well established prior learning assessment program and College-Level Examination Program, both of which allow students an expedited pathway to earning credit for skills they have acquired in the workforce for a fraction of the cost of a regular college course. Other expedited pathways to credit — that are also less expansive and more flexible — exist as well to support adult learners on campus.

But she’d like to see more departments get involved in collaborating with the new director of prior learning assessment, to expand offerings. Likewise, she’s advocating for an expansion of evening course offerings, since many of the adult learners she’s advising are working full-time jobs.

Additionally, she’s advocating for a policy change to a process that she thinks serves as an unnecessary deterrent for many adult learners interested in re-enrolling to complete their studies: the cumbersome appeals process for prior academic suspension, which is tied to financial aid suspension.

We forget that those feelings that come up can really create a sense of anxiety and a feeling that maybe I really don’t belong again,” she said. “In most likelihood, they will get approved. So it’s this little hoop they have to jump through. And I think it’d help their mindset if they could come in without having to think so much about it.”

Jon Quinn
Jon Quinn
For Jon Quinn, having Thury as a resource has been a game-changer. He’d initially started out studying information technology at Colorado State University as a recent high school graduate, but chose not to complete his studies once he was offered a position in the restaurant industry that would allow him to make more money than he figured he’d be able to make in his field of study at that time. Then he started a family and had two kids.

He’d long toyed with the idea of going back to complete his college studies, he says. But the undertaking felt daunting. Seeing his own kids off to college, he felt the timing was finally right to take action.

They motivated me to continue my education. And, of course, I’d like to increase my earning potential. I want to make more money and work with my head instead of my body,” he said. “But as an adult learner, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to be able to put education into my work life and still be able to be successful at both.”

Once he connected with Thury, he was able to map out a pathway that actually expanded upon his initial ambitions. At Inver Hills Community College, he’ll build upon the prior credits he’d earned to earn an associate of arts and earn some professional certificates that’ll allow him to get some professional experience in the IT and computer science sector. He’ll be able to do all this while continuing to work full time by taking advantage of online and evening classes, when possible.

From there, he now plans to go for a bachelor’s degree as well, by continuing his studies at Concordia College. “It feels good to see everything on paper and be like, ‘Well, by 2020, I’m gonna be starting my bachelor’s degree,’ ” he said, adding he plans to complete that final step within 18 months.

Part of a national trend

In many aspects, Minnesota is still catching up to other states when it comes to helping adults with some college credit but no certification to complete their studies.

Andy Carlson, vice president of finance policy and member services for SHEEO, has been working closely with Minnesota on its newly launched MN Reconnect program. But he also works with other states who are making advances in this work. From his perspective, there’s been a notable shift over the last three or four years in terms of who’s interested in thinking about adult education pathways differently. With most states having adopted postsecondary educational attainment goals, it’s no longer just higher-ed insiders who are focused on this, he says, but policymakers as well.

“The high school pipeline is not growing the way it used to,” he said. “So the adult student is really critical if states want to hit those goals. And those goals tend to be tied to workforce and economic needs, so they’re pretty darn important for a state.”

Some state programs are set up to funnel adult learners into high-needs workforce areas, while others are open to all areas of study. Some programs operate statewide, while others are more limited in scope. Some are confined to community and technical college, while other have brought four-year universities into the fold. Some offer students reduced, or even free, tuition.

In Indiana, the state offers two programs geared toward breaking down barriers for adult learners. The “You Can. Go Back.” program was designed to help adult learners who had dropped out of college come back to finish their degree. This initiative supports students with a state grant, recently increased to $2,000. Additionally, state policies have been adjusted to allow for more leniency for those who have been out of school for more than two years and re-enroll under this adult program: Their prior grades are discounted.

Building on this program, the state recently launched Next Level Jobs. This program provides adult residents with an opportunity to earn a free high-demand certificate, to advance in their work sector.

“We can drive people to different places on the website in a clear and simple way,” said Teresa Lubbers, the state’s commissioner for higher education. “What we know is if it’s too complicated, you lose people at the very beginning.”

Heidi Thury
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Heidi Thury, Inver Hills’ on-site navigator, has been working on campus for the last seven years and is familiar with the college’s prior-existing adult learner initiatives.
They’ve tracked more than 300,000 unique hits on their website, she says. At least 30,000 have provided information on the website that her office has then passed on to community colleges. Over 10,000 have enrolled in the workforce-ready grant program in just a little over a year.

In her experience, it’s also important for states to be “pretty aggressive about using prior learning assessments” to award credit in a more affordable, expedited way for adult learners.

“I think it’s important to value the knowledge that people have gained in nontraditional educational ways,” she said.

In Mississippi, the Complete 2 Compete program launched in Aug. 2017 and is already showing some promising levels of engagement and impact. Right now the program has 13,000 applicants, says Stephanie Bullock, the program’s project coordinator with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. To date, they’ve awarded 701 degrees to participants — many of whom didn’t actually need to invest in additional coursework to get a degree. And 860 students are currently enrolled.

Highlighting some of the elements that make this state initiative unique, Bullock points to their use of program coaches stationed at each of the 24 participating campuses, a pillar similar to the one MN Reconnect is being built around. In total, she oversees 50 of these advisers — a number that’s grown in tandem with the increase in demand.

She also points to a grade-forgiveness policy that allows students enrolling in the Complete 2 Compete program a fresh start, in terms of not having past grades calculated into their new GPA.

Additionally, the creation of a university studies degree program — specifically designed for program participants looking to attain a bachelor’s degree to advance at work, or to apply for a job that requires a degree without specialization — offers adult learners more flexible option for going back to school. Under this pathway, they can apply up to 30 hours of technical credits toward a bachelor’s degree — a significant change in the way most state public universities had dealt with technical credits.

Finally, Bullock says the program offers students access to grant funding — provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — that they can access in $500 increments, each semester, to pay off past college debt at other Mississippi institutions that may have been preventing them from re-enrolling.

All five of the states that Carlson is currently working with through this round of Lumina grants — Minnesota, Washington, Maine, Indiana and Oklahoma — are all doing things that are “very, very different,” he says. But he believes they’re all committed to figuring out what an adult learner needs in order to succeed.

“The reality is, someone who attempted college and didn’t succeed comes with a lot of legitimate baggage from that experience, potentially,” he said. “So the worst thing a state can do is re-engage students — get them to come back and invest their resources and time — and then not succeed a second time.”