In the news recently, the regents for the University of South Dakota system have focused attention on re-enrolling students who have "stopped out" and left their degree incomplete. This is in response to a recent report to the board that demonstrated that 1,889 students who had earned at least 90 semester credit hours had left the university system between 2003 and 2008. South Dakota is one of five states studying this population of students under grants from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).
We asked Demaree Michelau, WICHE's director of policy analysis, for her advice on the key barriers stop-outs face in returning to campus and how institutions can begin to address them.
Barriers Stop-Outs Face in Re-enrolling
Michelau notes that studies on this "ready adult" population underway in Nevada, Colorado, North and South Dakota, and Arkansas are identifying several principal barriers to re-enrollment:
- Competing "life" obligations
- Lack of familiarity with recent changes in campus processes (for example, registration may have moved from print to online since they were enrolled)
- Financial holds on registration
"Most stop-outs left because life happened, not because they were failing out or doing badly," Michelau notes. "If you make it to your senior year, you are probably doing okay. These students left because there was a death in the family, or because they were deployed, or their spouses were deployed. Something big happened. They didn't just reach the second semester of their senior year and suddenly decide this degree wasn't for them." In fact, the report delivered to the South Dakota board indicated that most of the stop-outs had above a three-point GPA until their final enrolled semester.
Michelau notes that whatever commitments in the student's life prompted them to stop out are probably still significant commitments today. Stop-outs may have full-time jobs, children, and other priorities. "Higher education is now competing with commitments that are arguably as important if not more important in their lives."
Helping Stop-outs Overcome the Barriers
"Many stop-outs want to come back, but they are only going to come back if getting their degree is quick, if it's efficient, and if it's worth it financially."
Demaree Michelau, WICHE
Michelau cites a variety of approaches campuses are beginning to take to help stop-outs re-enroll and complete their education, including:
- Providing a "concierge," or single point of contact, to connect returning students with enrollment and student services
- Offering flexibility in addressing financial holds on registration
- Offering a preliminary transcript evaluation
- Offering a rigorous prior learning assessment (PLA) program
- Finding creative, low-cost ways to extend student services beyond business hours
Adopt a Concierge Approach
State universities in Nevada and South Dakota, for instance, have adopted or are moving toward adopting a "concierge approach," designating one office or individual on campus to help stop-outs navigate the enrollment process (and later, student services) much more quickly. "The key is to have a single point of contact," Michelau advises.
As a first step, Michelau suggests conducting a "secret shopper" activity. Have a staff member call your own institution as though he or she were a stop-out looking to re-enroll. See where the call is routed, and find out how easily -- or with how much difficulty -- a prospective returning student will be able to navigate the steps to re-enroll. "You can find out where the holes are," Michelau advises. She also notes that you can conduct a similar activity to test the navigability of your university website for returning adult students.
Reconsider Policies for Registration Holds
Stop-outs frequently have financial holds barring them from registration. These can be related to library fines, parking tickets, or even student loan default. Michelau warns that this is often a critical factor in preventing stop-outs from returning to complete their degree, and advises considering adding flexibility into your policies on financial holds. Options might include offering payment plans or even waivers for minor holds. Some institutions have set a specific waiver limit; for instance, they may be willing to waive registration holds under $250 or under $500. After all, if the student returns and registers, the institution will receive more revenue from the student's tuition than from the payment of several hundred dollars in library fines.
Preliminary Transcript Evaluation
"Stop-outs shop around as they are applying to get the fastest and the most cost-effective option," Michelau warns, "and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to figure out how long it will take for them to complete their degree and what they will need to do." Often, returning adults will have earned credits at several institutions. For example, one student after stopping out may have continued to take night classes at another local institution. If there is no means for them to have their transcript evaluated prior to enrollment, they will be less able to make an informed decision whether to re-enroll at your institution. Michelau recommends a best practice of offering a preliminary transcript evaluation to prospective returning adults.
Prior Learning Assessment
Because degree completion is competing with other commitments in the students' lives, they will want to complete quickly, and your institution's approach to prior learning assessment may be a critical factor in their decision to re-enroll. How prepared are you to invite returning students to demonstrate competencies and knowledge that they may have gained through on-the-job training or career-related educational programming? "Your PLA program is essential to helping stop-outs return and finish their degree quickly," Michelau advises, "but your program needs to be of high quality."
For practical tips on conducting prior learning assessment with rigor, read our January, 2010 Higher Ed Impact article "Techniques for Assessing Prior Learning," with guidance from Denise Hart, director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and author of a landmark study of prior learning assessment portfolios.
Student Services Delivery: Moving Beyond 8-5
Many returning adult students will be attending courses and visiting campus outside of normal business hours, which has implications for how you offer them student services. Particularly in this economy, it may prove too costly to expand staff and hours, so look for low-cost alternatives that still allow you to begin meeting the needs of your returning students when the physical offices are closed:
- Do your student services websites include FAQs and key resources for returning adults that they can access and download online?
- Is the website easy to navigate? Can they find the information they need quickly?
- Can you provide the email for a "concierge"?
While expanding hours into the evening in multiple offices is costly, consider the investment in making that point-of-contact person available outside of business hours. Then ensure that your campus concierge is equipped to connect returning students with the resources and offices needed, and make sure the students know that they can contact that one person and get their questions answered. The campus concierge needs to be a very visible point of contact.