Adults Returning to College Face Barriers Beyond Tuition Cost


“Free college” programs eliminate one of the biggest barriers to a college degree, but for adults returning to school, tuition isn’t the only stressor.

About 13,000 adults enrolled last fall in Tennessee Reconnect, a state program that gives free community college tuition to people over age 25 who haven’t yet earned a college degree.

Mike Krause, head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission that oversees Tennessee Reconnect, told NPR they need to do more to prevent students from dropping out because their reasons for leaving school aren’t always financial.

“Ultimately this has got to be about making sure students don’t fall through the cracks because there aren’t any cracks,” Krause said. “We should always find ways for the state and campuses to bear as much of the support level as possible. I’m never going to blame a student for not succeeding in college.”

Compared to their counterparts who head to college right after high school, adults returning to college face additional stressors that institutions can’t control. For instance, of those enrolled in Tennessee Reconnect, 56 percent have children and 76 percent work. A majority of those are working full-time.

“Put that in a bowl together — what’s going to take priority?” said Pam Carey, who oversees the Office of Adult Learners and Veterans Affairs at Volunteer State Community College. “Your job and your family. That’s the priority.”

Krause has tasked community colleges with improving their processes for enrolling, registering, and advising to make them as easy as possible.

To meet these goals, Volunteer State has added a “relational completion adviser” to help support Tennessee Reconnect students, a role comparable to that of a school counselor in high schools.

“They’re having this wonderful opportunity to come back to school, but life is different as an adult,” Amy Hoffman, the new relational completion adviser, told NPR.

She said success is largely on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t just come down to the resources provided.

“They may have moments of feeling overwhelmed by it all and want to give up, but they somehow choose not to,” Hoffman said. “They persevere through the challenges.”

Listen to the full story and check out NACAC’s resources for adults headed back to college.

Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s senior communications manager for content and social media. You can reach her at

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