Desert Companion

Baby, come back (to school)

Nevada's higher ed system sets its sights on non-traditional students who dropped out when they were almost done

 Continuing Ed

Giving up college within 30 credit hours of graduation might make some people feel like quitters, but to the Nevada System of Higher Education, the thousands of people in this situation represent a gold mine of potential for upping the education level of the state’s populace.

This fall, the Nevada System of Higher Education started a program enthusiastically dubbed “Don’t Wait, Graduate!” It’s designed specifically to lure non-traditional students, who’ve earned a majority of the credits they need to graduate, back to school to finish their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

It started in 2008 with a Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education grant program called Non-Traditional No More, designed to help public institutions of higher education recruit non-traditional students. With funds remaining from that program, our higher ed system created a statewide public awareness and marketing campaign aimed at people who have completed at least 30 credits toward an associate’s degree or 90 credits toward a bachelor’s degree at one of the system’s seven institutions, but haven’t been enrolled for at least a year. That adds up to 8,300 people, according to state higher ed officials.

Support comes from

The campaign consists of emails, letters and postcards sent directly to those students, and public advertisements broadcast on radio, television and billboards. The message: Come back! We’ll find a way to work it out.


Where credit is due

Why bother? To begin with, Nevada lags behind the nation in college graduation rates. The nonprofit Complete College America estimates that, nationally, 38 percent of young adults age 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher, while in Nevada only 28 percent do. Nevada System of Higher Education data from 2010 showed that only 49.3 percent of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students were graduating within 150 percent of expected time at universities. That rate drops to 13 percent at the state’s community colleges.

 Jane Nichols, the system’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, says the system has taken its focus off improving this percentage, because it’s based on full-time, degree-seeking students, who don’t accurately represent the overall population. Instead, the Nevada higher ed system has shifted its focus to improving the total number of graduates. Getting people who are near degree completion to re-enroll and finish up is a way to boost that number quickly. In business terms, this group represents low-hanging fruit. But it’s not just about massaging the statistics.

There’s also what Nichols, who oversees Don’t Wait, Graduate, calls “the moral reason.” Putting a degree in someone’s hands greatly improves their chances of having a better life.

As of November 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.8 percent of the labor force with a high school diploma was unemployed, compared to only 4.4 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The U.S. Department of Education reports that, as of 2009, the median annual income of full-time salaried workers age 25 to 34 was $25,000 for those with a high school diploma or equivalent, compared with $40,100 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

[HEAR MORE: CSN President Mike Richards discusses the future of >> community collegeon "KNPR's State of Nevada."]


Prepare for re-entry

OK, so a college education helps you get a job and make more money. But how does “Don’t Wait, Graduate” help you get the education?

Mainly by designating one person at each of the state higher ed system’s seven institutions as a “re-entry concierge.” These counselors act as one-stop shops for people who are interested in going back to school but need help getting started. The idea is to streamline the cumbersome process of gathering information on programs, applying for admission, securing financial aid, registering for classes and so on — which can be bad enough for high school students, who have parents and school counselors to help them, but downright terrifying for non-traditional students, who may have been away from campus for a while, or not even know how to use a computer.

“I try to figure out what’s going on with each student,” says Nancy Markee, director of the advising center at UNR and the school’s re-entry concierge. “I have access to their records, so when they contact me, I can go in and look and determine what their options are.”

Is it working? So far, so good, according to Markee and her equivalent at the College of Southern Nevada, Valerie Conner.

Of the 5,600 students fitting the profile at CSN, 83 contacted Conner in the first month after the campaign’s launch in mid-November. Markee got a similar response — about 30 contacts out of 420 potential candidates. At press time, registration for spring hadn’t opened, but both counselors believed many of the students they’d spoken to would enroll when they could.

Nichols says the concierge concept is simple, but effective. It’s all about showing students someone cares about them. “Consider college athletes,” she says. “They do really well, because they have a lot of people paying attention to how they’re doing.”


Stay in from the start

Estela Bensimon, co-director of the USC
Center for Urban Education, says the true indicator of success won’t be an increase in the number of students who re-enroll, but a decrease in the number that drop out to begin with.

Bensimon, who studies higher education in the U.S. and consults with state systems in need of guidance (including the Nevada system), says she thinks it’s a great effort to reach out to non-traditional students and try to get them to re-enroll. She adds, “I also think, though, that it would be productive to learn why it is that students are leaving after having accumulated 90 credits. I think that points to a problem that needs to be resolved. Otherwise, students will continue to be lost at that milestone.”

Nichols says the Nevada System of Higher Education doesn’t have any data on why students are dropping out at such advanced stages of their education. So far, anecdotal evidence of “Don’t Wait, Graduate” indicates many of them do so for economic reasons or because of changes in their life situations.

“They took jobs and they couldn’t come back because of a financial situation, or they had kids and it was hard for them to balance family, work and school,” Conner says.

She adds that she will continue to carefully track the students recruited through Don’t Wait, Graduate and similar initiatives — not only to see how many of them complete their degrees, but also to find out why those who don’t, don’t.

From this point on, it will be up to the individual institutions to continue the effort and evaluate results. The grant funding for the program ran out at the end of December, although it provided each school with its own branding to continue marketing Don’t Wait, Graduate.

Nichols believes the effect will continue, even though the funding is gone. She says, “This has really changed our culture, to make us committed to hanging onto these students.” 



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