A Focus on Specific Dropouts Can Help Colleges Raise Completion Rates

July 29, 2014

College dropouts who came close to graduating but didn’t quite finish could be a key target for higher-education institutions that are under the gun to improve their completion rates, according to a report released on Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Instead of focusing only on helping new students succeed, colleges should also be reeling in some of the four million who intended to earn degrees and finished at least two years of study before falling off track, it says. Those "potential completers" make up a small fraction of the 31 million people the clearinghouse estimates have left college without earning a degree or certificate over the past 20 years.

Chasing down former students can be expensive and time-consuming, and knowing which ones are mostly likely to return helps. Some may have completed the coursework needed for an associate degree, and others may be just a few credits away.

"Because most data up to now has focused only on the graduation rates of first-time, full-time students, those with some college, no degree have been overlooked," the report says. They can’t afford to be forgotten today, the researchers say.

With the intense pressure federal and state governments are putting on colleges to increase their completion rates, "focusing on first-time, traditional-age students isn’t going to be enough," Afet Dundar, associate director of the research center and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview.

"There are four million people who made at least two years of progress in two- or four-year colleges," she added. "This is a huge potential for us."

The report, supported by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, digs through two decades of data to outline enrollment patterns among dropouts. The data, which could help both recruit former students and advise those at risk of dropping out, come from 3,600 participating colleges, representing 96 percent of enrollments nationwide.

Project Win-Win

Most former students in the target group are ages 24 to 29 and left college two to six years ago, as of December 2013. Most attended only one or two colleges, and they were almost equally divided between two- and four-year institutions, with many having attended both. The target group includes slightly more women than men.

Here’s who probably won’t return: Nearly a third of the "noncompleters" enrolled for only a single term at a single institution, so college probably is no longer on their radar. Others took courses at community colleges to improve their job skills or to switch careers, but never intended to graduate. A degree, to them, probably isn’t a big deal, and the time and effort it would take to hunt them down might be wasted.

Returning for an associate degree might also be a tough sell for students who enrolled in community colleges with plans to transfer to four-year colleges, since they never counted on getting a two-year degree.

This isn’t the first large-scale effort to help colleges lure back former students. Working with 61 colleges across nine states, Project Win-Win, which ended last year, helped some 6,700 former students earn associate degrees.

Cliff Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which helped lead the project, welcomed the latest study, but he questioned the research center’s decision to reach back 20 years to locate students. Project Win-Win went back only five to seven years because older credits often weren’t recognized, he said by email.

"In some fields (e.g., nursing) ‘old’ means more than two years," he wrote. "So if one is talking about bringing back students who have been out of school for 20 years, lots of luck." In his study, researchers were unable to find about a quarter of the students who either qualified for the degrees or were close.

Stop Outs and Dropouts

The research center allowed The Chronicle to share the new report with Stan Jones, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Complete College America. He praised its "powerful insights" but added that "our focus cannot solely be about the recruitment and outreach to ‘noncompleters’ and ‘potential completers.’ We must also ensure the system they are entering is one where their success is far more likely." His group has lobbied state lawmakers to base part of their higher-education allocations on completion and other measures of success, and has prescribed its own "game-changing" strategies for student success.

The clearinghouse’s report also focuses on another category of former students whom colleges have the best chances of retrieving: those who attended at least two terms at more than one college, often part time and with a few stops along the way. It calls those students "multiple-term enrollees."

Not surprisingly, the more often students "stop out"—to care for young children or aging parents, or to earn money to pay for a degree—the less likely they are to make it to the finish line, the statistics show. That’s the kind of data advisers can use, the researchers note, to encourage students to remain enrolled.

Colleges can track former students using the clearinghouse’s StudentTracker service, zeroing in on those the report indicates are most likely to return. And a college can tailor its outreach to those groups: Evening and weekend courses, for instance, might help those juggling multiple responsibilities.

"Knowing students’ age may help institutions to design outreach efforts based on their current stage in life," the report notes. "Similarly, knowing how long the student has spent out of the college setting allows institutions to tailor advice about the need to revalidate credits or whether a degree could be finished before that process needs to take place."

Helping students finish what they started should be a national priority, Joni E. Finney, a practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said in a news release accompanying the report. "These students represent a vast resource of untapped educational capital that the country can ill afford to overlook."