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Wayne State University

In the quest to help raise degree-attainment rates across the country, college administrators are realizing they’ve allowed millions of students to drop out over the decades -- and now they want them back.

The colleges have joined a new national effort to entice those former students to re-enroll and earn their degrees.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy recently launched a three-year initiative, called Degrees When Due, to help colleges identify former students who dropped out and help them earn a degree or academic credential.

“To successfully and meaningfully re-engage students, we need to offer them a new educational environment that acknowledges the student’s responsibilities inside and outside the classroom and supports them through the inevitable challenges of completing one’s degree,” Lexi Shankster, IHEP's director of student success and mobility, said in a statement.

Students drop out of college for various reasons, including family responsibilities, financial hardships, housing problems, health challenges and academic difficulties, Shankster said.

“Degrees When Due will prompt campuses to consider multiple changes,” she said. Those changes could involve creating accessible and affordable childcare options that match students’ schedules. Colleges may also consider removing parking or degree-filing fees or creating prior-learning assessments so students can get credit for their past job experiences, she said.

Two- and four-year institutions in California, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington are participating in the initiative.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimated in 2015 that more than 30 million Americans have enrolled in college but left without a degree or certificate in the past 20 years. A report released by the center in August found that more than 350,000 community college students transferred to another institution without getting a degree. Meanwhile, a California Competes report released earlier this month said four million Californians between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed some college but do not have a degree.

In Michigan, Wayne State University officials worked with the clearinghouse and found 690,000 adults in the Detroit metropolitan area do not have a degree despite having earned college credits. The institution also learned that more than 13,000 people attended Wayne State since 2005 and did not graduate or attend college anywhere else.

Wayne State officials will be joining the Degrees When Due initiative in the second cohort. The university is tackling financial hardships that may have prevented former students from staying and graduating. This fall the university is extending a new debt-forgiveness program, currently offered to enrolled students, to students who dropped out. The program, known as Warrior Way Back, allows students who owe the university less than $1,500 to register for classes and have their debt gradually erased. Students can enroll part-time, and if they are working toward completing their degrees, making satisfactory academic progress and are at least two years removed from when they initially dropped out, Wayne State will forgive $500 for each completed semester.

“A lot of these students left because they owed that money,” said Dawn Medley, associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State.

The university is also partnering with Macomb Community College to offer reverse-transfer opportunities to former students, so they can earn associate degrees. Under reverse-transfer programs, students who transfer from a community college to a four-year university and accumulate some college credit but do not graduate with a bachelor's degree may be able to use the credit they earned to receive an associate degree from a community college that has a reverse-transfer partnership with the four-year institution.

“That way they can take one or two courses and have an associate degree as opposed to nothing,” Medley said. “Then they can land a job at a company with tuition reimbursement and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.”

Shasta College, a two-year institution in Northern California, is also partnering with neighboring two- and four-year colleges to encourage former students to complete their degrees.

As part of the Degrees When Due initiative, Shasta officials learned that about 61,000 people aged 25 and older in the college’s three-county service area have some college experience but not a degree, said Buffy Tanner, director of the college’s Accelerated College Education, or ACE, program, which offers flexible programming and scheduling for students.

“It’s a significant chunk of our population and definitely a population that deserves attention,” Tanner said.

Shasta is partnering with the College of the Siskiyous, also in Northern California, to identify and find students. The college is also partnering with California State University Chico to offer reverse transfer to former students who don't have associate degrees.

The CSU System, University of California System and California Community Colleges have strong transfer partnerships, so even if someone dropped out of college elsewhere but now lives closer to Shasta, Shasta will be able to work with them to complete their degree, Tanner said.

Shasta is also planning to promote its ACE program so it’s appealing to returning, nontraditional students.

“We’ve built a program that is very friendly to working adults, and so the hallmarks of that program are that courses are eight weeks long instead of a full semester,” Tanner said. “The key part of the program is the compressed classes, but another key is that half of the classes are fully online. It’s very flexible and helps with working adults’ schedules and competing life responsibilities.”

There is also dedicated staff -- a counselor and financial aid adviser -- available to help students navigate college.

Tanner said the college will begin reaching out to former students early next year.

“Higher education didn’t work the first time around for these students, and we need to show them why they should give us a second chance,” Shankster said. “Most importantly, we need to make these changes so that not only do we welcome them back, but we also support them through the completion of their degree.”

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