COA readies for ‘shot of adrenaline’ to boost number of adult students

May 24, 2023

College of The Albemarle teachers and staff learned more this week about a “shot of adrenaline” intended to help the college attract and keep more adult students.

COA President Jack Bagwell told faculty and staff at the college’s spring convocation Thursday that declining enrollment at COA reflects larger trends in society, especially a decline among younger adults either enrolled in high education or participating in the workforce.

“We cannot ignore what is happening in the broader context,” Bagwell said.

That broader context, he said, includes increasing numbers of adults not participating in either school or work. One recent study in fact showed 25 percent of people ages 25-34 essentially living off their parents and neither working nor attending school, he noted.

“This is also the population that we’re trying to recruit,” Bagwell said.

One challenge — and opportunity, he said — is for COA to connect with students before they leave high school.

“We’ve got to show them why a job is going to help them,” Bagwell said. “We don’t just change lives. We change the trajectories of family’s futures.”

NC Reconnect is an effort to boost COA’s outreach to adult students, including those who may have started a degree or certificate program but never completed it.

The effort is mainly about a change of mindset, said Mike Krause of the John M. Belk Endowment, which funds NC Reconnect.

Krause said NC Reconnect already has learned three key lessons while working with the group of community colleges that were among the first cohorts in the NC Reconnect program. They include:

• That adults want to return to college;

• That the first four weeks when they return is the “danger zone”; and

• that personalized outreach is everything.

“Adults want to hear, ‘there is a way back for you,’” Krause said. “They want to hear, ‘there is an affordable way back to you.’”

Krause said support from NC Reconnect can be a “shot of adrenaline” for COA in its effort to reach adult students.

“We hope that this is the beginning of a long-term relationship” between the program and COA, Krause said.

Krause said he believes it won’t be long until COA will be a mentor for other community colleges on how to attract and keep adult students.

At the community colleges that were among the first cohorts in NC Reconnect, 1,731 students re-enrolled, yielding $2.1 million in new money to those colleges, Krause said.

Kris Burris, COA’s vice president of student success and enrollment management, will leading the college’s NC Reconnect effort. She said when she interviewed for the job at COA she presented a proposal focusing on reaching adults 25 and older. Now with NC Reconnect’s focus on adults 24-44, she believes she was meant to be here.

Burris said equity in higher education is achieved when everyone has a real opportunity to overcome the barriers they face obtaining an education. Most people stop when they believe equity is achieved, thinking they’ve reached their goal, she said.

“But I’m not satisfied,” Burris said, explaining that she intends to move beyond equity to “liberation” — removing the barriers entirely.

Bagwell also updated faculty and staff on major facility projects, such as the $25 million expansion of the health sciences and simulation center that will add 25,000-26,000 square feet to the campus for health sciences programs.

“That is an incredible opportunity for us,” Bagwell said of the facility expansion.

The offshore wind energy industry also is a wonderful opportunity for COA, which can provide training for people to work in that industry, he said.

“The renewable energy push could drive all sorts of things in our region,” Bagwell said.

The convocation made use of poll questions that participants could answer with their cell phones. Answers were projected on a screen.

One question: What trait does COA have that gives it the advantage among other colleges?

Answers to the poll question included: family, faculty, great people, heart, flexibility, friendliness, and creativity.

“I agree completely,” Bagwell said. “That’s what separates us is the people we have.”

Along those same lines, Bagwell said that in three years as COA’s president he had never had anybody walk up to him in a public space and say anything bad to him about COA in public.

He said two previous colleges he worked at were good institutions, but he would regularly have people approach him with complaints about faculty, staff or institutional policy.