Home Student Persistence Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner
Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner

Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner


In a recent blog post, I wrote about Aaron Basko’s Chronicle of Higher Education article in which he suggested that colleges might be overthinking how to improve student retention.

Thinking about Mr. Basko’s observations and recommendations reminded me of a Straighterline and UPCEA study released in November titled Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner.

It’s no secret that college enrollments have declined for the past few years. In the fall of 2020, those declines accelerated with most explanations blaming the COVID pandemic uncertainty as the primary reason for students not reenrolling. Straighterline and UPCEA targeted individuals between the ages of 20 and 34 who had earned college credits but were no longer enrolled. Survey participants were asked about their level of engagement with their institution, satisfaction with engagement, and likelihood of reengaging and reenrolling. The survey was conducted in the first two weeks of May of 2021.

The most common reasons given by the survey respondents for leaving college were personal/family issues (32%), money (24%), and work (11%). None of these are surprising or new to the retention field. The youngest respondents were most likely to say they left because they were disinterested or dissatisfied. Respondents who left most recently were less likely to cite money (18%) as the reason versus those who had left college behind years ago (29%).

Respondents less satisfied with their institution were the ones most likely to give multiple reasons for leaving such as money, not a good fit, or a change in program delivery (going online). Those more satisfied with their institution were more likely to cite family commitments as the reason they left.

As their time away from their institution increased, respondents were more likely to report that their institution was not very engaged with them as a student. Overall, 48 percent of newly disengaged learners were satisfied with their institution compared to 39 percent of intermediately disengaged learners and 28 percent of long-term disengaged learners.

One finding in the survey confirmed a recommendation from Mr. Basko. Survey respondents who reported that their institution was more engaged with them when they were a student were more likely to report that they have reengaged with the institution. As institutional engagement decreased, the percentage of respondents who were not interested in reengaging increased.

When the respondents were asked what their institution could have done to keep them enrolled, 46 percent said there was nothing the institution could have done. Only 20 percent of respondents acknowledged that there was something that the institution could have done to keep them enrolled. These respondents were generally the ones who reported that their institution was less engaged.

Survey respondents who reported that there was something that their institution could have done to keep them enrolled were asked about the effectiveness of potential strategies and tactics. The tactic rated as the most effective was if the institution provided a certificate for credits earned (43 percent rated this as extremely effective). Other tactics with high percentages of extremely effective ratings were providing a subsection of courses at a lower price (40 percent) and providing workshops that address the struggles of being a student (32 percent).

Less than half of the respondents indicated that they were extremely likely (21%) or very likely (22%) to continue their education. Slightly more than half of those respondents were extremely likely (12% of all respondents) or very likely (14% of all respondents) to reenroll at the institution that they most recently left.

The Straighterline UPCEA report includes responses sorted by six different student personas, sorted by age, sorted by degree program, and sorted by length of time since they left their institution. There are 57 different figures used to display the data. The report notes that “understanding the generational and behavioral differences that lead to a student’s reason behind unenrolling from their institution is a key variable for how institutions can reengage those disengaged.”

Among my key takeaways from this report’s information include:

  • It’s better to find ways to keep students engaged and enrolled than it is to try to reenroll them.
  • The best time to reenroll a student is within the first two years after they drop out.
  • Traditionally aged students (18-20 and 21-22) are the least likely to cite money as a reason for dropping out.
  • Providing students with a certificate for credits earned was selected by respondents as their favorite tactic for institutions to have kept them enrolled. Every institution should consider this tactic as the cost to implement it is miniscule compared to the cost of losing a student.
  • Slightly more than half of all respondents indicated that there was nothing that their institution could have done to keep them enrolled. Know your students and focus on meeting the needs of the persona most likely to re-enroll.

I like this report. For individuals responsible for student retention, I’d add it to my future reading list and focus on portions of the data that align more closely to my institution’s students’ profiles.

At the same time, I’d like to understand more about the methodology used to select the pool of potential respondents. Straighterline has marketed affordable online college courses for years and has many partnerships with colleges and universities who forward Straighterline leads for potential students (which may include students who have disenrolled from that college). I would like to know if the pool of survey respondents was randomly selected from the 20–34-year-old population of former college students at large or if it was selected from the database of students maintained by Straighterline.

While I suspect that these outcomes are directionally correct, I might weight the extremes higher or lower depending on which population was used to select the pool of potential respondents. One item in the report that triggered a concern about potential biases in the pool of respondents was the statement that 62 percent of the respondents said that their reason for enrolling in their program was a personal goal while only 44 percent cited career advancement. Those results are different than the much larger CIRP survey (50+ years and more than 1 million first-time, full-time college freshmen participating).

Nonetheless, I like the concept of this survey and hope that it might be conducted at some future date with refinements triggered by others interested in college student engagement and retention.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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