In the United States, more students drop out of college than receive a degree. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only four in 10 students receive a degree within six years and only 20% graduate with an associate’s degree from a two-year institution within three years. Over the past 20 years, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college and left without receiving a degree.
While it’s no secret a college degree has a significant impact on an individual’s socioeconomic status – with four-year degree-holders earning 134% more on average than high school graduates – the rising costs of higher education have placed many college dropouts in a precarious position. These dropouts owe some of the $1.5 trillion in student debt. From 2015 to 2016 alone, more than 3.9 million undergraduate students dropped out with federal student loan debt, totaling an estimated $28 billion.
According to Sarah Horn, CEO of ReUp Education, a San Francisco-based startup with $7.8 million in funding dedicated to sending drop-outs back to school, many students who leave college before graduating struggle to pay off their loans without the benefits of a college degree.
“This is one of the worst case scenarios for people in this country,” says Horn. “So often, in order to up-level your salary and get a promotion, or even have an entry point into certain careers that are above minimum wage, it requires a degree of some sort. If you’re left paying back loans and you don’t actually have that credential to improve your salary and income overall, that’s a huge problem, that creates a huge burden for you and your family.”
Though ReUp is one of the only for-profit companies working to bring students back to college, many states and initiatives have begun to realize the importance of bringing back dropouts, both for the benefit of the students, as well as the schools themselves. The project coordinator for Complete2Compete, a Mississippi program designed to help adults with some college credit complete their degree, Stephanie Bullock explained dropouts could be the solution to the education crisis in the U.S.
“If we continue to only focus on traditional students we will not be able to survive financially at the institutional level and we will not be able to increase the educational attainment rate to the level that we need it to be at,” says Bullock.
Mississippi is not the only state beginning to express concern regarding the decline in postsecondary enrollment rates. According to the data the National Student Clearing House Research Center released for the Spring of 2019, college enrollment has decreased at both four and two-year institutions for the eighth year in a row, dropping 1.8 percent in 2018 and 1.7 in 2019. This trend reflects a projected 15% additional decrease in college enrollment by 2025.
Debt forgiveness could be the solution to both problems
The vice president for applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Julie Ajinkya explained many of the underlying causes students dropout or face difficulty coming back to school have to do with the lack of affordable education.
“The reasons students drop out are almost always financially related,” Ajinkya says. “Even the personal reasons people cite are financially related, like not being able to find affordable childcare, or transportation to actually be able to take your classes.”
In addition to overseeing Degrees When Due, a free program designed to help institutions build their own capacity to help bring dropouts back, Ajinkya and IHEP have also analyzed another program for dropouts, Warrior Way Back, an initiative out of Wayne State University, that uses incremental debt forgiveness as incentive for dropouts.
IHEP calculated the revenue institutions could earn by forgiving dropouts’ debt if they come back to school. Using the interactive toolIHEP created which allows the user to adjust debt forgiveness and credit hours over time, if a school forgave $500 per semester of debt for 1,000 reenrolled dropouts over the course of four semesters, at $350 per credit hour for part-time students the university could generate anywhere from $6.4 million to $14.8 million net revenue.
Several other initiatives have also attempted to incorporate financial incentives into their outreach. Complete2Compete issues all students in their program a $500 donor-funded grant and schools like Kalamazoo Valley Community College, once implemented internal programs designed to provide eligible dropouts within a few credits of graduating financial incentives. However, the director of retention and completion at the school, Evan Pauken says the program was dropped because it ultimately fell flat.
“We didn’t find it to be fruitful,” says Pauken. “I think because what we feel like students need is a support person that can really dedicate some time to determining the specific barriers they’re facing, help them overcome them and also navigate their way through the system.”
In response to the many difficulties dropouts face in returning to school, several initiatives have incorporated personal coaches into their programs. The programs advertise and reach out to students who have been out of school from anywhere from one to 20 years. When one student who had dropped-out, Shaniqua Matthews, received her first call from ReUp she had been out of school for six years.
“I wasn’t even thinking about going to school,” says Matthews, a mother of two from New York. “Honestly, at first, I thought it was a prank call. But now, I think that was probably the best phone call I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
ReUp’s efforts helped Matthews finish her sociology degree at the College of Staten Island in 2019, a degree she had been working towards since 1995.
Overcoming a difficult process
For dropouts going back to school is not nearly as simple as the enrollment process for a traditional undergraduates and for many, not only do they have to re-prioritize their life to go back to school, but students that face reenrollment without programs like Complete2Compete or ReUp also have to deal with a confusing reenrollment process that is not readily accessible. For most universities you cannot even find reenrollment information on their website.
While Horn explained the reenrollment process varies from one institution to another, Matthews said it was difficult for her as a mom with full-time employment. She had to take an entire day off from work, going back and forth across her campus just trying to get all of her paperwork in.
Students who reenroll face multiple difficulties. For Matthews it was a matter of taking one class. However, this one class also happened to be an upper-level Spanish class – a language she hadn’t studied for over six years. This is when ReUp really stepped into help.
For the students they reenroll, ReUp provides full support throughout the completion of the degree, pairing each student with a coach. Coaches do anything from provide tangible solutions to moral support and inspiration. For Matthews, her coach, N’digo, helped her find a way to pass a Spanish class she had failed before and do it for free, through transferring credit from another school.
Ultimately, Matthews says N’digo helped her reach her goals, saying she was one of the first people who really listened to her and provided solutions to her obstacles.
“’It wasn’t solely just about a degree it was about me,” Matthews said. “She would ask me, ‘What’s your long term goal? What’s your short term goal? Do you think you can do it?’ And she always had a solution. Like if I said I couldn’t do it, she would ask, ‘What are the tools that you need?”
For Matthews finishing her sociology degree and finally getting her diploma felt like an investment in herself, nearly 25 years in the making.
“I was in tears sitting next to these 20-year-olds,” says Matthews. “Most of them don’t have kids. They don’t have a full-time job. They don’t have bills and mortgages. But I did and I still did it. My kids were there, watching me. It was more than a degree. I had accomplished a goal.”
Finding real results
Though many of the programs for dropouts are only in the very early stages, they have already begun to see an impact in both revenue for the institutions and degree attainment for the students. Since ReUp became operational in 2016, they have reclaimed a reported $25 million in revenue for their 40 partner colleges and universities.
Similarly, two of IHEP’s former initiatives, Project Win-Win and Credit When It’s Due – programs designed to help award associate’s degrees retroactively – have implemented the program at 556 institutions in 17 states and produced over 20,000 new associate’s degrees.
Bullock says at Complete2Compete they quickly saw former students taking an active interest in the program as soon as they launched.
“It spread like wildfire,” says Bullock.
The program had 1,000 applications within three days of launching in August 2017 and more than 15,000 to date.