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A nontraditional student works with an adviser

Efforts are underway in California to re-enroll adult learners who completed some college credit but did not finish a degree.

Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

Just one year into a three-year effort to re-enroll adult learners in California who previously attended but did not complete college, the initiative known as California Reconnect appears to be having some success. Seven colleges have boosted re-enrollment rates to four times higher than the national average, according to new data released today.

About 5,700 former students who previously stopped out have been contacted by the campaign, and of those around 480, or 8.4 percent, have re-enrolled. Comparatively, the national re-enrollment rate was 2.1 percent in 2021–22, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The new data document the progress of the pilot initiative since it formally launched in spring 2023. The leaders of the project say the data reinforce the need for expanding the program to 13 additional colleges in 2024 and should build support for additional state and institutional policy changes to provide more financial aid and wraparound support for adult learners.

The effort is a collaboration between InsideTrack, an academic coaching company, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and ProjectAttain!, a group of seven Sacramento-area colleges and universities focused on boosting educational attainment, and it is aimed at re-enrolling four million state residents who have some credits from two- or four-year colleges but no degree. The campaign to re-engage students who stopped out is occurring as colleges across the country adopt innovative ways to increase student rolls after the pandemic took a staggering toll on enrollment rates.

“The ultimate goal is to support the success of adult learners long term,” said Kai Drekmeier, chief development officer and co-founder of InsideTrack. “That requires good outreach and coaching support, which we’re doing, but it also requires generating more data to understand the challenges students face to generate ideas at the policy level.”

Susan Topham is vice chancellor of educational services in the San Diego Community College District. All three of the district’s colleges took part in the pilot year of California Reconnect.

“We saw this as an opportunity to have an outside entity really look and help us see if, indeed, what we’re doing is working, and if there’s some opportunities for us to step up our game and really address the needs of our adult learners,” Topham said.

Although the project is currently projected to reach a cap of 30 institutions by 2025, Drekmeier hopes that as the data on outcomes grow, lawmakers will support a statewide expansion that goes beyond three years and includes the 116 remaining public institutions.

“I think we’re going to be able to make a strong case for that,” Drekmeier said.

National Push for Re-Enrollment

Similar efforts to encourage adults with some college but no degree to re-enroll and complete their studies are emerging in states across the country. Some programs, including Tennessee Reconnect, date back to 2018. Other initiatives, such as MassReconnect, launched as recently as this summer in response to a confluence of headwinds, including a looming demographic cliff of traditional-aged students; the rising costs of living, which necessitates higher-paying jobs; the aftermath of a global pandemic; and possible labor force shortages.

Unlike California’s program, Massachusetts’s and Tennessee’s programs are funded by a state grant for adult-specific scholarships. Although the CalGrant program, a state financial aid program, can help some adult learners pay for college, they must take at least six credit hours per semester to qualify. The credit requirement is an example of the barriers that can exist for adult learners.

Drekmeier noted that the majority of returning adult learners are working part- or full-time as they finish their degree and can’t attend college full-time or even half-time. He said he would like to see a scholarship program designed specifically for part-time adult learners.

Fulfilling an Absent Mechanism

ProjectAttain! is also helping to identify other barriers that are holding students back from returning to college.

Melanie Dixon, executive director of ProjectAttain!, said these include a lack of affordable childcare, means of transportation and time constraints, all of which “are happening as a tangential to the financial barriers.”

Dixon said her organization encourages college leaders to work together to develop strategies to help students overcome these barriers and policies to remove them. Dixon said appointing a point person to advise adult learners and ensuring fresh data are collected, documenting adult learners’ behavior patterns in real time, have been the most common and successful strategies.

That’s where IHEP and InsideTrack step in.

IHEP is using its data-mining tool to help participating institutions identify which types of students have the highest likelihood of returning to college. Results have so far shown that those are students who already completed at least 15 units of their degree program and/or who stopped out within the last three years.

The InsideTrack staff then uses this information to work with college leaders to develop a list of students to contact. The key to connecting with students is being consistent and acknowledging that the process of returning to college after stopping out is complicated and often daunting, Drekmeier said.

“There’s a real focus at the end of high school on thinking about where you’re going to take your life and what you’re going to do. And the reality is for adults who want to come back, we don’t really have a mechanism for that in our society,” he said. “So having someone to talk to about what might be the best academic and career path is really helpful.”

California State University, Sacramento, was focused on re-enrollment even prior to the launch of California Reconnect as a “regional incubator,” or testing ground, for ProjectAttain! over the last three years.

“[We’ve] seen how regional collaboration among educational entities increases opportunity for individuals and communities,” Jenni Murphy, interim vice president of enrollment and engagement at the university, wrote in an email. “We are looking forward to the next phase of California Reconnect which includes … additional outreach and coaching for the priority populations (Black, LatinX, and Adults).”

An ‘Efficient’ Investment

The leaders of California Reconnect hope not only to boost re-enrollment, but also to propel graduates into in-demand careers that meet state and regional labor market needs.

According to a 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, 40 percent of all jobs in the state will require a bachelor’s degree by 2030. PPIC projections also suggest that the state will be short of the 1.1 million degree holders needed during that time period to meet labor market needs.

Hans Johnson, a PPIC senior fellow, noted that both the percentage of jobs demanding degrees and the deficit of individuals equipped to fill them have “almost certainly” risen since the institute’s last report.

Johnson believes programs such as California Reconnect are “tremendously valuable.” He noted that individuals who complete college receive long term gains in wages and benefits and are less likely to need welfare services or be involved in the criminal justice system. They also are more likely to contribute tax dollars and help grow state revenue, he added. He hopes state lawmakers will invest in the campaign moving forward.

“Most of these students are California high school graduates … so there’s already been an incredible amount of outlay on the part of the government to promote improvements in their college completion,” Johnson said. “Adding a couple more years to that investment is an effective and efficient thing to do.”

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