How can colleges reach stopped-out students amid COVID-19?

Higher education’s transition to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic may turn out to have a positive impact on the re-enrollment of students who have earned some college credit but no degree. There are roughly 36 million “stopped-out” students nationwide. And while their overall enrollment dropped by 15.6 percent this fall, some higher ed leaders have seen the COVID-19 disruption as an opportunity to appeal to stopped-out students who could benefit from the flexibility of virtual learning. 

Prioritizing flexibility and affordability

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, 123 former students re-enrolled this fall after learning about the institution’s Finish Line Initiative. Typically, the university’s outreach to stopped-out students prompts around a dozen students to return. 

“It occurred to us that the population that might actually appreciate and benefit from where we are right now, with 90 percent of our courses being online, is this population of near completers,” Yvette Mozie-Ross, University of Maryland Baltimore County’s vice provost for enrollment management and planning, told Higher Ed Dive. Noting that this fall’s re-enrollments will bring in roughly $385,000 in additional tuition revenue, Mozie-Ross says UMBC may make permanent some of the online courses most popular with stopped-out students.  

The virtual setup of University of Louisiana’s Compete LA program—launched last year—has similarly proved beneficial in the current environment. “We’ve seen more students coming back because of the urgency of their need to upskill,” said Katie Barras, assistant vice president for academic innovation at the University of Louisiana System. “I don’t know if we would have that same volume absent COVID.” 

Compete LA pairs stopped-out students with a coach, who helps the student assess which credits will transfer to the nine participating universities and create a path to obtain their degree as soon as possible. The program also sets tuition at $275 per credit—far lower than the typical sticker price for those institutions.

That kind of financial visibility is crucial for a student population that often is juggling college alongside family and work responsibilities. “If they’re that close to finishing, and they didn’t finish, there are a lot of other things happening in their lives that prevented them,” Eric Fotheringham, director of strategic academic initiatives at the University of North Carolina System, said. 

In addition to helping stopped-out students create a financial plan, institutions are increasing students’ chance of degree attainment by awarding credit for prior work experience, offering them coaching, fostering a sense of community, and allowing stackable credentials.

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