How colleges turn near-completers into graduates

To boost the local economy and meet workforce needs, some states are launching initiatives to re-enroll former students who left higher ed without earning a degree, writes Lexi Anderson for Education Commission of the States (ESC).

According to a 2011 report by the National Student Clearinghouse, roughly 31 million individuals in the United States have some college credit but no degree. These near-completers often face degree completion barriers like affordability, schedule flexibility, and life circumstances, explains Anderson.

While many states have introduced legislation to recruit these adult learners, only one bill has been enacted in 2017, reports Anderson.

But across the past several years, Indiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have emerged as leaders of the re-engagement movement, she argues.

Pulling from programs in these three states, Anderson highlights four key takeaways for any leader interested in boosting adult learner re-enrollment.

1: Invest in a clear marketing campaign

For the launch of Indiana's "You Can. Go Back." campaign, the state's Commission for Higher Education partnered with a marketing firm to create branding and a website geared towards near-completers, reports Anderson. The state recruited former students through emails, phone calls, and postcards, she writes.

Like Indiana, Mississippi's Complete 2 Compete (C2C) campaign delivered its materials via job centers, back-to-school folders for parents, and military facilities, notes Anderson.

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2: Leverage state data

The C2C campaign compiled 15 years of data on Mississippi's student enrollment and degrees awarded by merging data from the state's Community College Board and Institutions of Higher Learning.

Although near-completers are a notoriously difficult population to find, Mississippi was able to sift through the state data to identify 160,000 eligible students, writes Anderson.

Like Indiana, C2C also developed a web portal geared towards near-completers. However, Mississippi used state data to provide eligible students with a personalized URL that directed them to a page with pre-populated, personalized information, notes Anderson.

3: Emphasize affordability

In the "Drive to 55" campaign, Tennessee plans to expand its last-dollar scholarships to help adult students attend community college for free, reports Anderson.

The initiative, titled Tennessee Reconnect, awards grants to adult learners pursuing an associate's degree or certificate who maintain continuous enrollment at a 2.0 GPA. In addition to awarding grants to students not eligible for federal aid, the initiative also provides counseling services for students in debt.

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4: Win stakeholder support

All three states engaged local colleges and universities to help steer their re-engagement initiatives.

The CTC campaign asked chief academic officers at participating intuitions to create an Adult Degree Completion program that offers near-completers a flexible path towards a bachelor's degree, writes Anderson.

Similarly, Tennessee Reconnect collaborated with institutions to waive fines and parking tickets that may prohibit former students from re-enrolling, writes Anderson. Indiana also collaborated with institutions to establish flexible financial aid policies for students who have been out of school for two or more years, she notes (ECS report, accessed 9/25). 

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