The University of California system wants to grow its enrollment by at least 23,000 in-state students—the equivalent of an additional campus—over the next eight years. To help reach that goal, the system is looking to adult learners with some college but no degree.
The University of California Degree Completion Program, which launched this month, seeks to bring back former UC students and California residents who left college without attaining a degree and help them earn either a degree or a certificate. Nearly 6.4 million adults in California have stopped out of college—by far the largest group of the nation’s 39 million total, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.
UC’s campuses in Davis and Riverside are spearheading the program, which also includes the Santa Barbara and Merced campuses. The program’s work for the next two years will be supported by $4.85 million in state funding, which can be used for application fee waivers and other student support services. During that time, campus administrators hope to re-enroll nearly 800 students.
“Through the service areas of these four universities in particular, we’re going to be serving the parts of California that are least served by the University of California,” said Kevin Vaughn, the university extension dean for UC Riverside.
At Riverside, 6,030 students who left the campus in good academic standing between 2008 and 2020 will be the focus of the program’s outreach efforts, according to a news release. Underrepresented students make up 76 percent of that group, and 48 percent are first-generation. UC Davis’s recruitment campaign will target 3,862 students in good standing academically who stopped out from 2009 to 2018 and have completed at least 60 credits. Forty-four percent of that group are first-generation students, and 28 percent are underrepresented students, according to a news release.
Susan Catron, dean of continuing and professional education at UC Davis, said the degree completion push builds on her department’s previous efforts to support a range of students.
“We’ve been a pathway back in for a long time,” she said. “It’s really amplifying things we’ve been doing on a smaller scale for many, many years, and then wrapping some support around that and really making it a more effective bridge for these learners back to their degree.”
In an effort to reverse declining enrollment trends, more colleges and universities have started similar programs in recent years to attract adult learners with some college but no degree. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center wrote in its 2022 annual report, “Some College, No Credential,” that enabling this group to finish a postsecondary program brings personal and societal benefits.
“But high college costs, inaccessibility, and the currently strong labor market have kept low-skilled workers out of higher education,” the report says. “If these trends continue, a growing number of U.S. workers lacking education credentials risk being left behind in the twenty-first century economy.”
Vaughn said the UC Degree Completion Program is just a first step.
“More and more we’ve seen over the last decade that the landscape of higher education is changing in significant ways,” he said. “Universities that meet this head-on, I think, are going to be successful in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a sea change in how universities are tackling this.”
In a fall 2021 survey of more than 1,000 UC stop-outs, University of California, San Diego, researchers found that many former students said they were interested in finishing their degree or certificate, noting that financial aid and a flexible course schedule would make it easier for them to return.
“Our model is really grounded in high-touch advising to provide navigational support and case management to navigate the kinds of challenges that these types of learners face,” Catron said.
Catron said the program’s budget includes money for application fee waivers, as well as tutoring and other support services. Students can complete a certificate through the extension or continuing professional education department, or transfer to a UC campus to complete a degree. The program’s advisers will work closely with campus personnel to help students transfer in and finish their credential.
“Our focus is absolutely for degree completion, but we do offer multiple alternatives and multiple pathways for those adult learners,” Vaughn said.
Students who re-enroll will have to pay tuition, but Catron said the advisers will work with them to find financial aid to enable them to complete the program.
Patricia Steele, founder of the research company Higher Ed Insight, said bringing back adult learners and helping them succeed requires addressing institutional barriers and giving clear information about the cost and time involved.
“It’s so clear that the barrier for students is institutions themselves, and that’s not exclusive to adults,” Steele said. “It’s hard to transfer. It’s hard to re-enroll. It’s hard to get credit for past experience or prior learning outside of school.”
According to a study that Higher Ed Insight released earlier this year, adult learners who have returned to college to complete a degree cited personal motivating factors, supportive staff and an inclusive culture as key factors in their success, said Tashera Gale, co-author of the report and director of evaluation services for the firm.
Gale added that the adults surveyed said they wanted to feel like they belonged on campus and that their lived experience was valued. She suggested that to re-engage adult learners, colleges and universities should appeal to students’ personal reasons for coming back, such as meeting goals or being a role model to family, friends and community members.
Colleges also need to be realistic about the time commitment stop-outs need to earn a credential and provide opportunities to accelerate the program, because this group tends to be more pressed for time than other students, Gale said.
Steele said previous studies on stop-outs have shown that institutional requirements—such as passing algebra—can hinder students who want to come back. So can lingering debts, such as library fines.
“If you’re going to care for the needs of adults, some of those really not well-thought-out policies have to be changed,” Steele said.
Vaughn and Catron said they are planning to track and document the barriers they find while working with UC stop-outs who come back in order to raise awareness about their needs and advocate for policy reforms.
“There’s room for all of us to help address this challenge, and it really is going to take the proverbial village,” Catron said.