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More than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, colleges and universities of nearly every size and type have seen the erosion of student enrollment, with the impacts especially severe among students from underserved communities. Nationally, nearly one million fewer students have enrolled in higher education since the pandemic began. The recent wave of declining enrollment has collided with another long-running trend: the demographic cliff. The number of first-year student prospects starting college at 18 years old is expected to decrease by 15 percent or more due to a declining birth rate that began in 2008 during the Great Recession.

To stabilize enrollment and ensure their long-term viability going forward, institutions of higher education must look beyond the declining pool of first-time, full-time learners and place their focus on the estimated 36 million students in the U.S. with some college credit but no degree. This is also a social and economic justice imperative at a time when an increasing number of new jobs require education or training beyond high school—yet individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented in low-wage career paths.

But re-engaging students who have stopped out isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy—nor is it as simple as simply extending a polite invitation for students to return. Coming back to college takes an extraordinary commitment for any student, but especially for those from underserved communities or low-income backgrounds. Too often, institutional policies and practices needlessly complicate the process of re-enrollment by adding new hoops and hurdles to an already challenging experience. For example, returning students often face a variety of financial barriers and hurdles—such as transcript holds from unpaid tuition and fee balances that lead to stranded credits.

Even these small financial or administrative burdens can create major barriers to re-enrolling students. A survey from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that 95 percent of higher education institutions withhold transcripts for one or more reasons, with an unpaid balance being far and away the most common reason cited (96 percent).

There are promising examples of how changes in public policy can help to remove these unnecessary barriers to re-enrollment for returning learners. In the Buckeye State, the Ohio Department of Higher Education launched the College Comeback program, which issues formal guidance for how publicly supported colleges and universities can forgive outstanding student debt in exchange for new tuition revenue. The Tennessee Reconnect program is offering state-funded, last-dollar scholarships targeted to adult learners to make re-enrolling more affordable.

Some institutions are deploying creative financial aid strategies to ease the financial burden and incentivize students to come back. The College of Marin in Northern California deployed COVID-19 relief funds to offer $2,000 cash grants to students who stopped out during the pandemic.

While removing barriers to access and affordability is critical, we must go further and examine the ways in which institutional systems and policies create roadblocks to re-enrollment and attainment. At National University, where I work, more than 80 percent of students are transfers who bring existing college credit. We took the step of redesigning our intake and onboarding process to make it easier for students to audit their degree. Specifically, we used our student information system to make it possible for students to create and visualize a degree map—and understand how their existing transferable credit and credit for prior learning can count toward a degree or a certificate. This approach saved students approximately $25 million in tuition costs over a three-year period—and enabled us to waive more than 14,500 courses by awarding credit for prior learning.

Institutions and policy makers must also invest in and expand wraparound support services—such as coaching, career advising and basic needs support—to help remove barriers to successful re-enrollment and re-entry.

Legislators in New York State proposed legislation that would require public colleges and universities to review re-enrollment policies that apply to students who have taken mental health–related leaves of absence.

Meanwhile, the United Negro College Fund used philanthropic funding to assemble a network of eight historically Black colleges and universities and one predominantly Black institution with a goal of re-enrolling 4,000 former students. The colleges partnered with the nonprofit InsideTrack to provide one-on-one coaching to former HBCU students, remove barriers and help returning students develop a plan to restart their education.

Indeed, networks and consortia can also help to advance the work of re-enrollment at a larger scale. The Institute for Higher Education Policy has created the Degrees When Due initiative, which has grown to include more than 190 institutions in 23 states. They recently published a report on the emerging best practices surrounding degree reclamation. The report noted that many noncompleters are “within just a few courses of completing a degree”—underlining that the potential to successfully re-enroll significant numbers of students and help them finish is well within reach.

Re-enrolling former students not only supports institutional financial health and sustainability: it’s also a critical investment in the economic flourishing of individuals and the communities in which they reside. The Economics of Education Review recently published a study by Kansas State University economist Amanda P. Gaulke finding that students who re-enroll and finish their bachelor’s degrees earn $4,294 more immediately after graduation and see an average annual income growth of $1,121. Those are earnings that are reinvested in the regional tax base and in local businesses, helping to shore up our local economies.

Re-enrollment can help restore hope for students who have not always been well served during their first experiences with higher education. To regain the trust of learners we seek to re-enroll, we need to redesign enrollment systems and processes to reflect the complex realities—and lived experiences—of returning students. Amid uncertain enrollment prospects, colleges and universities face a new imperative to engage students whose learning journey is already underway—and help them finish what they’ve started.

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