Op-ed: Free college initiatives should focus on re-recruiting degree completers

As free tuition programs gain momentum in states like New York and Tennessee, Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, argues that we're leaving a large population of potential students behind.

The tuition-free experience risks lowering academic standards and encouraging students who might attend college only "because they can't figure out anything else to do," writes Ungar for the Washington Post. Instead, he argues that colleges and universities should shift focus and serve the 36 million American adults who weren't able to finish college.

Colleges can help this constituency realize the potential for "upward mobility and economic prosperity" that accompany a college degree, writes Ungar. Beyond the economic advantages, reeling in these unfinished degree holders will lead to a better educated and more engaged democracy, he notes.

Two ways to ease re-enrollment for adult degree completers

Contrary to popular belief, these "stop-outs" are often in good academic standing and many intend to return, Ungar argues. Unfortunately, most stop-outs do not re-enroll. While Ungar understands the impulse to believe the decision to suspend a college education is "exclusively financial," he posits that the whole picture is a little more complicated. According to a 2010 report by Complete College America, it is usually life that derails part-time college students from degree completion.

To reduce barriers to re-enrollment and boost completion rates, Unger argues that colleges must revamp their advising practices and provide more support for transfer students.

How to eliminate persistence barriers

For example, he recommends tapping in specially trained advisers to offer flexible counseling over the phone, online, and after hours. With better guidance, Unger argues that students can avoid "uninformed choices that slow their progress." He also suggests that colleges offer more courses late at night and even on weekends.

Ungar is under no illusion that a "college education is for everyone." He does believe, however, that those who have sincerely tried to complete a degree deserve a "second chance" (Ungar, Washington Post, 8/2)

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