Bringing Students Back to College: A Path to Completion

A report by education lender Sallie Mae reveals that roughly 26 percent of current undergraduates have seriously considered leaving college or are at risk of dismissal. This statistic translates to one in four students being at risk of not completing their college education. The report highlights that first-generation students, minorities and low-income students are significantly more likely to consider leaving, as they often juggle work commitments alongside their studies. 

To address this, we must focus on targeted recruitment efforts to bring these students back to college. Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae, emphasizes the need for more support in early college planning, particularly for first-generation students and those from underserved communities.

“Often the conversation is about access,” he notes, “but there are a ton of things we can do to better address college completion.” 

Financial concerns are the primary reason students consider putting their education on hold. Rising college costs and ballooning student loan debt have caused more students to question the return on investment of a college degree. For the 2023-24 school year, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year private college was $56,190, while at in-state public colleges it was $24,030, according to the College Board. 

To recruit these students back, institutions must offer robust financial aid packages, including scholarships and grants, to alleviate the financial burden. Sallie Mae’s report found that about half of the students at risk of dropping out struggle to meet the cost of tuition and other related expenses such as textbooks, housing and food. Castellano advises students to seek alternative funding sources and to stay the course, as “it’s harder to come back after taking a gap year or multiple gap years.” 

Nancy Goodman, founder of “College Money Matters,” recommends that students find ways to reduce borrowing and manage their finances through part-time jobs, taking extra classes to graduate early, or finding affordable housing options.

“The worst thing you can do is have loans and drop out because then you have the debt and not the advantage of the degree,” Goodman says.

By providing guidance and resources for financial management, colleges can help students see a clear, affordable path to graduation. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts highlight the alarming statistic that borrowers who start college but never finish have a default rate nearly three times higher than those who graduate. This underscores the importance of finding ways to support students through to the completion of their degrees. 

There is a silver lining in the form of growing re-enrollment numbers. From 2022 to 2023, 934,000 students who previously dropped out re-enrolled, a significant increase from the previous year. This demonstrates a growing recognition of the value of a college degree and a willingness among students to overcome obstacles to achieve their educational goals. 

Colleges must adapt to this changing landscape. Nearly two-thirds of returning students switched to a different institution, often moving from four-year colleges to community colleges. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, stresses that colleges need to look beyond their former students and identify new candidates for re-enrollment. 

To effectively recruit these students back, institutions should highlight flexible learning options, including online courses and part-time schedules, to accommodate working students. Additionally, offering career counseling and support services can help students navigate their educational and career paths more effectively. 

In conclusion, recruiting students back to college requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses financial concerns, provides support for first-generation and underserved students, and adapts to the evolving needs of re-enrollees. By implementing these strategies, colleges can help students complete their degrees and achieve their educational goals, ultimately benefiting both the students and the broader community. 

You may also be interested in our transfer enrollment strategies as you think about engaging college returners :

By Cat Hollands, Client Trainer, Capture Higher Ed