In the last year, we have noticed a change in how higher education professionals are talking about stopped out students. Prior to this shift, the most innovative minds on the issue of ‘some college, no degree’ students were the ones who were taking note of the issue at all. What we are seeing now is that the conversation has progressed from taking note to taking action. Where it once seemed like most institutions were primarily asking “Shouldn’t we be doing something for this group?” we are hearing a lot more of “Here’s what we have tried, what have you tried?”
It is a welcome change as more attention is rightfully placed on the 36 million Americans that started college during the last three decades but have not yet finished. Higher education has largely realized that something needs to be done differently to support this population and are now at the point of determining what strategy will be most effective.
As an organization focused specifically on serving this unique population, our experiences helping these students return to college and graduate have shaped our thinking about the best approaches. We suggest several key questions to bring into the conversation as your institution considers how to develop techniques, policies, programs, and services to help these students achieve their goals both during and after college.
(1) How should our re-enrollment process differ from our first-time enrollment process?
Prospective returning students often share with us how they are grappling with their sense of belonging as a factor in deciding to return. They noticed during their previous college experience that “the system” is in many ways designed envisioning the student journey of someone who had just graduated high school and comes directly to college. After having been gone for years, prospective returning students know they will not fit that typical direct-from-high-school model. As they begin to take steps towards re-enrolling, they often encounter college procedures that reinforce what they were already worried about.
For example, some colleges have policies that only envision newly enrolled students coming to live on campus and consequently require recent immunization records as a step to re-enrolling. For the returning student who may not have recent shot records and does not plan to live in a dorm, this is an unnecessary barrier.
Similarly, requiring the submission of a student’s high school records makes sense as a step in the admissions process for a student enrolling directly from high school. But it serves no purpose for a returning student, who already submitted their high school records the first time they were enrolled at the school, and is likely to be understandably frustrated by being told that they need to do so again.
Another example is an enrollment sequence that requires any student who wants to take classes but was not enrolled in the previous term to apply (paying an application fee) and then subsequent to being admitted, meet with an academic advisor in order to find out what courses are being offered that term. This is logical flow for a first-time student, presumably helping ensure they have some guidance as they select courses. But for a returning student who only needs a couple of specific courses to graduate, it does not make sense. They do not need help selecting courses, and worse yet, can get trapped in a cycle of re-applying just to find out their needed course(s) are not offered that particular term. Then try again the next term, if they maintain their interest in returning despite the annoyance of how the system treats them.
The issue really boils down to making sure the re-enrollment process is different from the initial enrollment process in the parts that are not applicable to returning students.
We find that it is incredibly insightful for an institution to map out in writing the specific steps of the enrollment process that returning students are going to be asked to navigate, and then reflect on which steps are truly necessary, and which are actually creating an unnecessary barrier. This can be exciting, because while so many student success investments are costly, we often hear from our partner institutions that they were able to make parts of their enrollment process non-mandatory for re-enrolling students or switch the order of a few key steps with little to no added expense.
(2) How are we personalizing the experience for returning students?
After first considering how returning students are a unique population, institutions can then dig deeper into the nuances that exist even within their stopout population by making sure the student experience works across a wide range of possible returning student situations.
Our research has shown that while these students share one significant detail in common – having some college but no degree – they are not at all a monolithic population.
Coming back to college is a different kind of journey for a student who left because of personal/family commitments than it is for a student who left for health reasons, given the unique nature of the obstacles they are overcoming.
There are a host of factors that influence the dynamics of a returning student’s journey:
- How long the student has been gone
- What kind of motivation is driving them to return
- Whether they still live in the same region
- The extent to which their career dreams have changed and their original degree program still aligns with their goals
- Whether they have become a parent or not
- Their ability to fund college
You get the picture. These 36 million students are in the “same situation” but the situation looks quite different in each case. The bottom line here — if we recognize that student situations have a ton of variation, the way we talk about coming back to (and graduating from) college should not be with “one size fits all” uniform message.
When tailoring outreach, we have found the highest level of engagement comes through customizing all three of these factors:
- The content of the message. For a student whose challenges are primarily internal (motivation, follow-through, time management) there is great benefit in pointing out resources that would offer them a personal relationship that provides accountability. For students whose primary challenges are external (overcoming specific barriers, knowing how the process works, funding) there are a different set of resources to highlight.
- The cadence of the message. If a student is on a more extended timeline to return, it typically makes sense to check in less frequently than a student that has fewer barriers in their way and is on a more immediate timeline to return. Conversely, if a student is more likely to be prepared to return in the near-term future, it is beneficial to talk about specific readmission deadlines.
- The channel of the message. While some students may prefer to engage in a conversation about returning primarily via text message, others may instead want to do so via phone call or email exchange. Having multiple options increases opportunity for success.
This deep level of customization does not have to be a “one by one” exercise – that would be far too time consuming to scale across an institution’s entire stopout population. ReUp has found that the demographic information institutions already have about their stopped out students has predictive power that enables this sort of customization to happen at scale if the right technical resources are deployed.
(3) Is proactive outreach being used to help support the persistence of returning students once back?
Personalization plays a key role not only in communicating with returning students, but also in providing services for them. This is more than just recognizing that different students need different services – this is recognizing that different students need different levels of assistance in order to fully utilize those varied services.
Most colleges provide a set of counseling, tutoring, career, and other professional services designed to assist students who come forward and ask for help using a reactive model. This works well for students who recognize that services might exist to help with their challenges, are able to match their needs with the correct department, have available time and transportation resources during the hours the department offers services, and are comfortable coming forward to ask for help.
But a reactive model does not work well for everyone. Students who have been gone from college for years are more likely to live off campus and work during business hours. Many of them are first-generation students who don’t have a family member that can talk to them about how to navigate the college system.
In order to maximize the likelihood that students are connecting to the resources that can impact their success, ongoing proactive outreach is the surest strategy because it does not leave to chance and extroversion whether students will take advantage of the resources the institution offers. When a person regularly reaches out to returning students to check on them and discuss their challenges, it creates an opportunity to match the specific needs of each student with the right resources to help overcome obstacles and move them toward success.
Not only does this help make sure no student needs go unserved, what’s more, it changes the dynamic of the institution’s approach to helping students. In a reactive model, the institutional resources get deployed to help “catch up” students who have fallen behind or supplement needs after students get so frustrated that they ask for help. With this proactive model, the institution is aware of the challenge sooner, when a turnaround is easier. The resources come to bear sooner. Which means the institution is getting better utilization and return on investment for the money they have already spent on creating these resources.
Consider the student who knows by week three of their calculus class that they are struggling to remember the concepts from the prerequisite course they took years ago, prior to stopping out. They muddle along in frustration and get a terrible grade on their midterm, then decide to come forward for support in the math tutoring center. In this case, it is a student who didn’t need help identifying the correct service department, but they were reluctant to come forward. What if somebody had been checking in with them and could have encouraged them to go to tutoring back at week three? How much more likely to ultimately persist is the student who gets help as they need it, rather than the student who gets help only when they’ve dug a hole so deep that they overcome their reluctance to seek the assistance?
(4) How are we sharing the success of returning students?
Higher education has long looked at 4 year and 6 year graduation rates as the ultimate measures of completion. When new efforts to bring back students produce the desired result — graduates — it is unfortunate that the success of these students will not be counted in these traditional measures, because they typically fall outside the 6 year window. It is as if this work is so under-the-radar that there is no official way to document it.
This is a shame. Because it would be a fantastic story to tell. How about a 20 year graduation rate? How about a percentage of former stopouts represented in each graduating class? Higher education needs more dynamic ways to measure holistic success of all learners. Given our collective shift toward a knowledge economy and life-long learning, the trend is clear.
This story belongs out in the open — both in aggregate measures and also by telling individual stories. ReUp gets the opportunity to highlight the work of students overcoming obstacles to finish what they started, giving them a platform to speak about their journey to inspire others here.
It is a great asset for returning students to see real stories of students that were successful in coming back years after stopping out. This normalization is even more powerful when they can hear these stories from students at their own institution, so it is worth asking whether there is a mechanism in place to capture and tell the story of individual students at your institution who come back and complete.
Students benefit from seeing that “somebody like me” has been able to do this, so it is important to share a wide variety of student stories. In particular, consider including stories about students who returned at varied stages of degree completion. There is a prevalent myth that only “near-completers” are likely to be successful at finishing college. ReUp sees students at every stage of degree completion, including those who had barely started college when they stopped out, come back and successfully completing.
Not unlike their students, colleges and universities benefit from seeing that another institution “like me” has implemented a stopout-focused strategy that proved effective at increasing re-enrollment and completion. With our unique vantage point in helping all kinds of institutions think specifically about this unique population, ReUp enjoys accelerating progress by identifying and sharing best practices and tactics across institutions.
As you engage in these conversations about taking action to pave the way for stopped out students to return and finish, we would be delighted to be a part of the discussion with you! Reach out here!