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UNC System expands efforts to help adult learners complete college

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The UNC System is launching a statewide initiative to offer one-on-one success coaching to help students with some college and no degree or credential complete their studies at one of eight system schools.

Such students usually made the choice to stop out – putting their education on pause for certain periods of time. For many adult learners, a pause in their education often becomes a full stop. As a result, N.C. higher education leaders are working to remove barriers for these students so they can successfully complete their programs.

“The pandemic has made college access more challenging than ever, especially for adult learners and students from historically underrepresented populations,” said Eric Fotheringham, director of community college partnerships and adult learner initiatives at the UNC System. “The expansion of this work will be a crucial part of the System’s efforts to support returning students, remove barriers to re-enrollment and success, and ensure that students have the support they need to succeed.”

The UNC System is partnering with national nonprofit InsideTrack to reach and coach students through returning to eight UNC system campuses. About three years ago, the System partnered with InsideTrack to pilot this approach.

The initiative involves the following campuses:

  • Appalachian State University
  • Elizabeth City State University
  • Fayetteville State University
  • UNC Charlotte
  • UNC Greensboro
  • UNC Pembroke
  • Western Carolina University
  • Winston-Salem State University

More than 39 million adults in the U.S. have at least some college credit and no degree or credential, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In North Carolina, there are slightly more than 1 million adults with some college, but no degree or credential as of July 2020. Nearly 34% of those adults are younger than 35 and about 54% are ages 35 to 64.

North Carolina has an educational attainment goal of 2 million North Carolinians ages 25 to 44 with a meaningful, high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. That’s about 67% of adults in that age bracket, according to projections from Carolina Demography.

Efforts to support adult learners

N.C. Reconnect, a coalition of community colleges across the state, started similar work to re-enroll adult learners in 2021. N.C. Reconnect also partners with InsideTrack to provide one-on-one coaching for up to 12,000 adults. The start of the program saw nearly 1,000 adult learners enrolled across the five pilot schools. Last spring, it expanded to five more schools. Earlier this summer, InsideTrack announced the program reached an additional 10,500 adult learners.

The UNC System has expanded its focus on adult learners in recent years. In 2021, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $97 million for the launch of Project Kitty Hawk, a nonprofit ed-tech startup partnering with the UNC System to design workforce-aligned online programs and attract and support adult learners.

In March, UNC-Chapel Hill announced a two-year statewide initiative, entitled “Our State, Our Work,” to connect young adults to living wage employment opportunities. Thirteen groups across 37 counties were selected to receive supports from UNC. Those included guided listening sessions with youth, technical assistance for employers, and program management support. UNC will partner with local school systems, community colleges, workforce agencies, and nonprofits for the program.

Many of the UNC System campuses involved in the latest coaching initiative are minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Since outreach work with InsideTrack began at those campuses about three years ago, the System has worked to strengthen postsecondary access among first-time, low-income students. The System will now build coaching programs for students who enrolled in college through the federally- funded GEAR UP program.

“To help more students chart a successful path to earning a degree or credential, it’s critical that we support the needs of the whole student by working with them to overcome non-academic barriers to student success,” said Carrie Lockhert, associate vice president for partner success at InsideTrack. “This unique collaboration between the state system office, its institutions, and other agencies across the state will help more North Carolinians access pathways to and through higher education.”

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.