EdSurge: The Forgotten Students

illustration of students walking

I’m working currently on a book about why people choose college. In the course of the research, I’ve listened to hundreds of students tell their story about how they made the college—or any postsecondary education—decision.

Many of the students I’ve listened to were, at one time or another, college dropouts. They left for a multitude of reasons, from family needs and responsibilities to medical and financial hardship, as well as a lack of purpose for being at college in the first place.

What’s striking is that, in almost every single story I listened to where the student dropped out, almost never did the college they were attending reach out to see how they might help them re-enroll.

In the language of a new report by ReUp Education, whose mission is to support students who have stopped out of college, these are “The Forgotten Students.” (Full disclosure: I’m an advisor to the company.)

Over a million students drop out of college each year. Only 43 colleges out of 1,669 reviewed in a study by the Educational Policy Institute had a graduation rate of over 90 percent. By contrast, 1,132 of them had a graduation rate below 59 percent. And despite the increasing amounts of energy and money spent on trying to retain students, the “Forgotten Students” report observes that they still continue to stop out—often for very rational and responsible reasons like supporting a loved one in a time of medical emergency, or because the bills to live have just become too high to pay.

The impact of this on students is well documented. Students who drop out rack up crippling debt without the benefits that come from the earning premium of having a degree. There is also an impact on institutions which is less discussed. The 1,669 institutions in the Educational Policy Institute’s study “collectively lost revenue due to attrition in an amount close to $16.5 billion in a single academic year,” according to The “Forgotten Students” report.

Focusing on the forgotten students just hasn’t made as much sense from a cost perspective to universities. But the collective cost is significant.

According to the Lumina Foundation’s “It’s Not Just the Money” paper, there is a tremendous societal cost as well. Students who graduate college have, on average, significantly better health outcomes with lower rates of obesity and heavy drinking. Life expectancy is seven years longer, on average, for a 25-year old with a college degree compared to one without. And governments reap far higher tax payments from, and spend far less on, services for college graduates. Civic participation is also much higher for college graduates along a variety of measures.

Given all this, why aren’t institutions better supporting students who have left their campuses to help them get back on track when their circumstances have changed and they are ready?

For starters, bringing students who have left back to campus is hard. It is difficult to locate, contact, understand and support them. ReUp estimates that the contact information a college or university has for over a quarter of students who have stopped out is out-of-date.

Bringing students back requires a nuanced approach. They haven’t all left for the same reason, and they aren’t in identical circumstances seeking to make the exact same progress in their lives. Many have extrinsic reasons for wanting to come back—like to make more money. But many more are driven by intrinsic motivations, like proving to themselves and showing others that they can complete a college degree. Working with them requires deeply understanding not just the different pushes and pulls that might spur them to return to college, but also their anxieties and current habits that are keeping them from re-enrolling.

On top of this, as Richard Price wrote for the Christensen Institute, “From a university’s perspective, re-enrolling students who have dropped out are often seen as generating lower returns on investment than first-time enrollment and retention efforts. These students are traditionally at a higher risk of not graduating than first-time students and may require more resources to help them succeed.”

In other words, faced with a decision over where to spend limited resources, most universities opt to spend money recruiting new students or keeping the students who are enrolled currently. Focusing on the forgotten students just hasn’t made as much sense from a cost perspective to universities. But the collective cost is significant.

This dynamic may change in the years ahead. As Nathan D. Grawe writes in his new book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” in less than 10 years there will be far fewer first-time students for colleges to recruit. On my Future U podcast with Jeff Selingo, Grawe shared that as a result, spending more money on increasing the funnel of students may not be a viable strategy for many colleges and universities. They may have to focus on those they’ve forgotten about in the past.

And if that’s the case, they better start soon.

Michael Horn (@michaelbhorn) is an EdSurge columnist and Principal Consultant for Entangled Solutions.