Community College Blog

How to support stopouts and prevent dropouts

by Meacie Fairfax

I am a two-time college stopout.

For those unfamiliar with the term, stopout refers to students who withdraw from college temporarily and re-enroll at a later date. Whenever an academic term comes to an end, I wonder how many more students like me have left their starting institution, never to return.

When I decided to leave my institutions (a two-year college and a four-year university) my intent was to continue my education. However lack of support, guidance, and resources lead me to leave, permanently. The only people who seemed to notice were the ones at my student loan agency.

My schools continued to flood my inbox with emails about enrollment periods and upcoming deadlines long after my departure. Those seemingly well-meaning emails exacerbated the disappointment I felt, making it even less likely that I would return to their campus. In the end, I went on to yet another college.

Degree, interrupted: A common occurence

Many of our students, like my younger self, are "ghosting" their schools, disappearing without a word. According to the National Student Clearinghouse analysis of students who began community college in the fall of 2011, 11% completed at another institution, and 47% are no longer enrolled. All too often, stopouts become dropouts.

There are many reasons for this, but our research suggests that it's possible to manage the causes of stopouts—and stopouts themselves—more effectively. All too often, we fail to tell our students it's normal to struggle on a test, miss a class, or feel overwhelmed. In fact, it's estimated nearly all community college graduates will stopout at least once. To sustain the "keep students on path" mantra, we should, ironically, expect some deviation from that base, based on what we know about our college students behaviors.

Missing opportunities to support students outside of class

Students share: Navigate simplifies advising

"Not everyone has time to make appointments…a lot of people are working during the day. You are able to communicate in a detailed way and it [Navigate] gives access to single parents who work and go to school. You can ensure you are doing everything right."

The biggest culprit for stopping out is the struggle to balance college with external commitments. A 2009 Public Agenda study found that the majority of adults who left school attributed their decision to problems with juggling work and school, nearly twice as much as the next most common issue, tuition affordability. This impact is especially felt by older students who tend to have more life commitments outside of school. From fall 2015 to 2017, enrollment estimates of adult students aged 24+ declined by 10%, perhaps reflecting the particular unmet needs among this population.

The recent Community College Survey of Student Engagement, including results from 297 colleges, reinforces the idea that colleges could do better in providing the life skills and support that would enable students to better manage non-academic priorities, such as mental health care, financial counseling, and child care programs.

Now hiring: Chief stress-management officer?

Four strategies to support (and re-engage) stopouts

While some colleges are attempting to gather feedback from students to aid in delivering the right type of support, it often falls short. We estimate that across the sector, less than 20% of community colleges have a mechanism in place to check in annually on student engagement, learning, and experiences.

Here are four ideas to consider on your campus:

  1. Utilize Navigate's student profiles to determine needs and provide personalized student support. Students often self-identify their external commitments in their profiles. Readily use this information to send information on available resources and deadlines which may make their college life more manageable.

  2. Discuss and normalize breaks during onboarding and orientation. Proactively provide students information on first year norms and pitfalls while providing next steps and strategies for what to do when "life" happens.

  3. Invest in withdrawal support specialists. Designate or hire staff members who connect with students who request to drop a course or show signs of academic distress.

  4. Repurpose a professional advisor into a re-engagement advisor. This staff member would reconnect with stopouts by providing individualized financial and academic support and expedite their re-admission process.

How four-year programs are putting re-enrollment strategies into action

Remember that sometimes, the best route to fulfilling a goal might demand a detour from the anticipated pathway. Take it from me, a two-time stopout: With support and engagement built into your programming, students will know they are at the right institution, even if it is the wrong time. And when they receive an email wanting them back on campus, they will know they are returning to an institution best-suited to help them reach their goals.

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