What’s preventing stopped-out students from returning to campus?

A national survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education sheds light on the complicated experiences of students who attended college but left without a degree, reinforcing the challenge ahead for institutions hoping to re-engage stopped-out students.

Despite growing skepticism about the value of a college degree, U.S. adults still have positive opinions about college overall, according to the Chronicle’s Public Perception Puzzle, a project that analyzes how U.S. adults feel about the value of a college education. In July and August of 2023, the Chronicle conducted a random-sample national poll of 1,025 people, including adults who attained a high school degree or less, had some college experience or an associate degree, or had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Although most respondents said a college degree or credential can have some overall benefit, those with some college experience but no degree or credential expressed a mix of anger, regret, and disillusionment about the role higher education has played in their lives and the barriers that kept them from completing their degree.

As colleges recover from pandemic-induced enrollment declines and prepare for a demographic cliff as a result of a steep drop in birth rates beginning in 2007, higher education leaders hope to bring some of the over 40 million adults with some college but no degree or credential back to campus. However, the Chronicle’s survey and its interviews with about a dozen of respondents who stopped out of college reveal the difficulties they face in returning to college. “Many have come to a conclusion: College isn’t for them,” the Chronicle writes.

“Institutional leaders…need to know how well they’re doing at the things that the public thinks are most important,” says Brock Read, editor of the Chronicle in a video discussing the project. “We found in some of our survey work that the things people think colleges are best at are not necessarily the things they think are the most valuable.”

Nuanced opinions on higher education

While the vast majority (78%) of all respondents said they would advise a friend or family member to try for a bachelor’s degree, a larger share of all respondents (86%) believe trade schools or other professional training is the same or even better than a bachelor’s degree in placing adults on a road to a successful livelihood. Among respondents with some college experience, 75% said they would advise a friend or family member to pursue a college education, but only 44% said they would take classes again in the future. Just 31% of all respondents with some college experience said colleges did a very good or excellent job educating their students.

Some of the stopped-out students interviewed by the Chronicle shared similar sentiments, as they discussed the hopes they initially had when they started a postsecondary program, their eventual rocky experiences in higher ed, and the obstacles that discourage them from reenrolling, such as rising college costs, lack of academic support, and whether a college education is necessary for attaining a successful career.

John Bevan, a 35-year-old carpenter, told the Chronicle that he struggled to pay off student loans after three attempts to start college and even had his wages garnished, despite not attaining a degree. He is now paying more in interest and fees than he originally borrowed. “That’s so frustrating that somebody is making a lot of money off of that,” he said. “And it’s not you and I.”

Others, such as 26-year-old Alicia Rangel, said they received minimal support from their high schools, their universities, and their families as they attempted to navigate college life and seek help. A first-generation college student who stopped out of the City College of San Francisco, Rangel said family pressure to return home and a lack of guidance from her college reduced her confidence. “Letting someone else discourage me from getting a better future, doing things I had my heart set on,” she said, “was really disappointing.”

First-generation students like Rangel face complex barriers to college completion. The survey found that parents’ level of education influences whether or not a student completes college; just a quarter of respondents who were first-generation college students had earned a degree, compared to half of all continuing-generation students.

There are rational, nuanced explanations for why students stop out and decide not to reenroll, Benjamin L. Castleman, a University of Virginia associate professor of public policy and education, told the Chronicle. To appeal to these students, colleges “need to craft policy that respects those nuances,” he said.

Easing students’ return to higher ed

A new report from California Completes, which includes interviews with over 50 returning students who completed their degrees, highlights several key hurdles to reenrollment, including paying fines for overdue library books or parking, redoing the reenrollment process, and losing financial aid eligibility because of unsatisfactory academic progress, EdSource reports. To encourage stopped-out students to complete their degrees or credentials, the report calls on higher education institutions to eliminate these obstacles and simplify students’ return process.

The report also says that, to appeal to stopped out students, higher education institutions should change their approach to academic probation to focus more on providing support, rather than reprimanding students who are struggling. They should also waive reenrollment requirements and fees, forgive institutional debt, and provide more flexible course scheduling and online courses. 

Calbright College, an online-only community college geared toward adult workers without a college degree, is one institution reaching out to returning students by evaluating them for skills they acquired through higher education and work experience, and by eliminating tuition and fees for California residents, the Chronicle says. Calbright’s online community and support services persuaded first-gen student Rangel to continue her postsecondary education. “I have a real desire to finish this,” Rangel said, “for myself.”

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