MnSCU aims to help dropouts return to, finish school

Gerry Page
Gerry Page is working to finish up degrees in business management and building inspection at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. Page left school a few years ago after being deployed to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It's estimated there are 37 million Americans who have some college credits under their belt, but no diploma hanging on their wall.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system will soon begin contacting some of its former students who have dropped out over the years, in hopes of getting them to come back to school.

It's something colleges across the nation are doing as a way to increase the number of Americans with college degrees.

Gerry Page first started working on his degree at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park back in the early 1980s. But holding down a job at a bank, while taking night classes, just didn't work out at the time.

"It just got very difficult with the family life, with work and everything, to finish it up. So I never did," Page said.

Page, a first sergeant with a Minnesota National Guard radar unit, returned to school a few years ago after a stint in Iraq. It wasn't long before he was deployed again.

"That put it on hold once more," Page said.

"They probably don't realize how close they are to getting a degree."

Shortly after returning from Iraq last spring, Page got a postcard from North Hennepin Community College. It reminded him he was only a few classes away from getting a degree and he should re-enroll.

"That just kind of got me moving and thinking you'd better look at continued education," Page said.

The nudge to return to school came courtesy of the college's Return to Learn initiative.

North Hennepin's dean of adult education, Jaime Simonsen, said they've scanned the last three years of their records to find students who've dropped out before getting a degree. They contacted them to see how the college could encourage them to come back.

"We're trying to take the initiative to invite them to come back, and we hope they take the initiative to ask the questions they've been thinking about, but just haven't made that telephone call or never came in the college to ask," Simonson said.

Students drop out for a lot of reasons. From scheduling conflicts with work and family life, to personal financial trouble, academic problems and military deployments.

If students do decide to return, counselors at North Hennepin help them track down financial aid, or develop flexible course schedules. They even offer some students additional credits for work experience or training they received in the military.

North Hennepin's effort is paving the way for a similar project that will cover the entire Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

With help from an $800,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, MnSCU is compiling names of students who dropped out over the past 10 years. MnSCU thinks about 160,000 are good candidates to return to get a degree among the hundreds of thousands.

MnSCU's Mary Rothchild said they're finding many students who dropped out didn't realize just how many credits they actually earned.

"They probably also don't realize how close they are to getting a degree," Rothchild said. "A good deal of our project is just trying to reach out to people, ask them if they're interested in coming back to school, and then providing them with more intentional services to help realize how close they are to degree completion."

MnSCU will start sending letters and e-mails to former students early next year in an effort to get them re-enrolled by fall semester.

Similar efforts across the country have already shown results.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington DC is working with some community colleges to track down students who left school without getting diplomas.

The group's president, Michelle Cooper, said in the first phase of the project they found more than 2,000 students just short of a degree, and some who qualified for a degree but for some reason didn't get it.

"We helped nearly 600 students get an associate's degree, and we lined up almost 1,600 students who fall into the category of just being academically short," Cooper said.

Colleges obviously benefit when dropouts return to get their degrees. First, there's the additional tuition revenue. It can also improve a college's graduation rates, and it helps colleges get information on why students left.

College officials hope to use that data to develop programs to keep students from dropping out in the first place.

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