Student Retention: What Do You Do When “Life Happens”

When adult educators get together and discuss their concerns, student retention is always mentioned as a major issue. This should not come as a surprise, though, because adult education is tasked with serving those most in need.

Adult students come to your classes for a multitude of reasons:

  • To get their GED
  • To learn to speak English
  • To help their children with homework
  • To go to college or get training
  • To get a job or job promotion
  • A judge has ordered it
  • They dropped out of school and now want to finish

No matter what level a student is at – Literacy, ABE, ASE, or ESL – he wants to reach his goal. However, as we say in the field, sometimes “life happens,” and the student drops out. Retention is not only a problem in adult education; it is also a problem for high schools, training programs, and higher education.

Why did she drop out when she was doing so well? Why did he quit coming when he had completed two levels and always had great attendance? Here is what it means when students say “life happens,” in their own words:

  • “My child got sick, and I couldn’t come. Then it just was too hard to come back.”
  • “I had to start working overtime and just did not have time.”
  • “My mother got sick, and I had to take care of her.”
  • “I lost my job and had to look for another one.”
  • “My friend quit, so I didn’t have a way to get to classes.”
  • “My husband didn’t want to me go to school anymore.”
  • “I had to get a second job to pay our bills.”

What steps are working to help your program retain students? Some programs have classes that run for a semester; they feel the start/stop date helps retention. Other programs feel charging a small book fee gives students a “buy in” to the program. Many programs have attendance policies in place, and others have a counselor who works with the student from orientation to completion.

Do you have an admissions risk profile assessment that gives your staff information about potential risk factors that often contribute to a student dropping out? The results provide your team with the information needed to get additional support for the student – childcare, extra tutoring, transportation help, etc.

I would like to hear from you with your questions and suggestions about retention… an issue that concerns all of us. Please e-mail me at as to what has been helpful for your program. I will use your suggestions in an upcoming blog post. Who knows how many programs you may help and how many students may complete their educational goals because of your ideas!


Here at the Kaplan College-El Paso Campus take LIFE situations very seriously. We call it L.I.F.E. Living In Full Expectancy. During orientation and during the time at the campus we teach our students with Life coping skills to get through life.

School is about developing discipline in life, yes it gives you a new skill and new techniques to be marketable out in the workforce, however it shows you to be consistent in every thing you do. Many obstacles and objections that is thrown at us daily can be avoided if you are consistent. For example consistent in your marriage, family life, as parents, in your job, school and every thing that follows.

We train students to understand that living in full expectancy will help you get through those ruff spots, expect the worse but also expect the best. Life gives us options that make opportunities but it also gives us opportunities that will give us options.

Horacio Huerta

You should fully expect that there are situations that are out of a student's control, no matter what choices are made to maintain consistency.
And that's a fact (of LIFE).

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