The 39 million question: How can higher ed bring back students who stop out?

National Student Clearinghouse researchers and college leaders highlight opportunities to reenroll adult learners.

They’re out there. The question is, can institutions of higher education find a way to reengage with the millions of learners who have some college credit but no credentials?

According to new research released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on the 2020-21 academic year, more than 39 million individuals remained sitting on those credits—including 3.1 million new ones since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic leaving big gaps in completion but also opportunities for colleges and universities that can bring them back.

The Center highlighted the lack of completion among college starters—only 62.2% are making it to the finish line—and the propensity of first-timers to stop out. More than a quarter of freshmen (and 40% of those starting at a two-year institution) do not make it past their first year.

Despite the discouraging statistics, more than 940,000 students opted to either reenroll in their institutions or sign on at different schools, with around 60,000 earning their first credentials, presenting that higher ed still possesses value for those who stopped out. That far exceeds the pace from 2019, when the Center showed that 1 million students had returned over the previous five years.

“These outcomes indicate the scale of opportunity that the SCNC population represents for efforts to raise the level of postsecondary education attainment in the U.S.,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “At a time when most colleges are still reeling from historic enrollment declines during the pandemic, the continued health of higher education institutions, and their ability to meet the needs of future students, may depend on their success at reengaging SCNC learners.”

Rick Torres, president and CEO of the Clearinghouse, agreed, suggesting that all of the pressure on higher ed to combat rising tuition, maintain enrollments and convince students that continuing their learning is a wise choice could result in a new way to find more students. “There’s an opportunity to affect a transformational change in the narrative and reset the trajectory of learners and enrollment declines,” he said.

More from UB: Gallup poll shows stress as No. 1 reason for students stopping out

Higher Ed Insight Founder and CEO Patricia Steele, one of several leaders brought in by the Lumina Foundation and the Clearinghouse to discuss the report, said institutions that seize on the chance to reconnect with students might be pleasantly surprised at how keen they are to complete their studies. It published its own survey in March showing that students who came back not only stuck it out but often surpassed expectations.

“What was fascinating to me was their incredible success,” she said. “A large portion of these folks have not only completed two credentials, but they also completed more than one credential in some cases. Many people look at this population and they see stop-outs or dropouts. In reality, this was really a story about perseverance, not persistence. They didn’t look at themselves as people who had stopped out. They identified as folks who are getting ready for a time when they could reenroll. College was fitting in between life for them.”

Steele said two imperatives must take place to reach them. “We have to extend the timeframe that we give students to succeed when we think about outcomes,” she said. “We also have to really think radically about how to make the process easier.”

Inside the numbers

From the Clearinghouse report, two-thirds of those reenrolling were from the 20-24 and 25-34 age ranges, meaning they aren’t far removed from their campus days and are likely more willing to jump in. Ages 35-44 and 45-64 still remain interested, at 22% and 11%, respectively.

There were other notable data points:

  • Those who earned first credentials were divided evenly among types—associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and certificates. Institutions in the Northeast, however, were much more heavily weighted toward bachelor’s earners (46%) than the others, with certificate earners at less than 15%.
  • Of the students that re-enrolled in 2019-20 and persisted through 2020-21, the highest demographic percentage was seen among Asian students at 61.2%, followed by whites at 57.6%. Native Americans were the lowest at 51.1%, with Black students just ahead at 51.4%. Latinx and Pacific Islanders were a bit higher, at around 55%.
  • Only two states—Connecticut and Nebraska—did not see an increase in the number of students with some credit and no credentials. In Arizona, the number jumped by 15%. Three of the biggest states—California, Texas and New York—along with Illinois comprise one-third of those student types. The state with the largest per-capita number of those students is Alaska.

How institutions are responding

Morgan State University has created a new College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies that features eight undergraduate degree programs, five masters and five at the Ph.D. level for stopped-out students. Nick Vaught, the interim assistant dean, says it has been a whirlwind, with close to 200 students being enrolled since January.

“What’s really unique about the programs are they’re meeting high needs within the employment industry, and they’re not modifications of currently existing programs,” he says. “We’re not taking a face-to-face program and trying to find a way to accelerate it so an adult learner can do it. We’re building a new program. We’re accepting a maximum amount of transfer credits coming in, giving some credit for prior learning and credit for professional service. We’re doing this because our goal is to help students finish their degree, not really start over.”

Like Morgan State, which has manually reached out to students who have left the institution, Pueblo Community College has done the same for its students who stopped out with significant credits and less than $500 in debt and made them an offer. “If they completed a semester successfully, we would pay off their debt, which then would allow them to be financial aid eligible again,” said Patty Erjavec, president at Pueblo CC. “That was met with a lot of enthusiasm. But we didn’t stop there. We knew that if we were going to really get these students who cross the finish line, we needed to pay attention to the reasons they dropped out to begin with. And so wraparound services became extremely important.” Its success rate is 87% since it started in 2016.

For institutions looking for guidance, panelists offer simple advice:

  1. Reach out to campus stakeholders such as institutional research that can provide lists of students who have stopped out.
  2. Make personal connections. A phone call or a personal email often will get the attention of stopped-out students. In turn, once they are in, they likely will tell others about the program.
  3. Consider partnerships with others, as Morgan State did with EAB and Amazon Career Choice, to expand the network and leverage the tuition offers they have.
  4. Understand why students would consider coming back and then utilize messaging that brings that home—addressing career pathways, the support the institution offers, or the flexibility of courses.
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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