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Forging Pathways Back to College

The EvoLLLution | Forging Pathways Back to College
By thinking through barriers to entry for students with some college experience, colleges can vastly expand access to higher education for adults and support their degree completion.

Those of us who work with adult students are all too familiar with it—that moment when life gets in the way of education. As much as we try to create flexible, personalized and relevant educational offerings, there are simply times when a student has to put their educational goals on hold.

But, this isn’t an issue that plagues only adult students. You can lead those 18- and 19-year-old students to the campus, but sometimes they don’t drink the scholarly water. Whether it is due to poor grades, increasing student loan debt, indecision about what to study, an amazing job opportunity, or something else, sometimes they just don’t finish.

Suddenly, that young college kid who stepped away from campus for a term or two is now years removed from completing their degree. They are an adult with the responsibilities of work and family, and find themselves thinking about the degree they didn’t finish. They see others around them—at work, in the community—all with degrees. Maybe peers’ careers are advancing and they’re stuck in a job with no opportunity for advancement. The realization that the choices made in college really do have an impact hits hard. Their confidence level may be low, and in many cases the hole appears too deep and too difficult to really start over with college. It just seems overwhelming. How do they make a fresh start?

To some, this is a story that could emphasize retention rates, return on marketing investment, and leveraging cost per enrollment, but our goal was to share a different story—one that resembles a successful family reunion, one that demonstrates hope, forgiveness, personal achievement and celebration.

In 2007, Dr. Judy Bonner, then provost at The University of Alabama, was on a mission. Her goal was to identify students who left the University without their degrees, bring them back, and help them complete that lofty goal. By this time, UA had several undergraduate degrees available totally online and the academic options were real, relevant and convenient. Adding to the mix was an academic forgiveness policy known as Academic Second Opportunity (ASO) that created a new path for those who had struggled academically. The pieces were in place, and she needed a campus advocate to make it happen.

The College of Continuing Studies (CCS) was charged with the mission to develop a program that would give those former students—the ones that already had chosen UA years earlier—a way to return and finish their undergraduate degrees. CCS was the centralized administrative unit facilitating UA’s online degrees. It had the infrastructure to launch an organized campaign staffed with enrollment counselors to work with anxious, returning students and a strong marketing team to promote and develop awareness.

CCS realized that to make the program successful, there were several key components. First, there had to be a clear incentive from the University demonstrating an interest in recruiting students back to the institution. Second, we had to communicate that many of the barriers to returning had been removed. Third, we had to keep it simple in terms of qualifying for the program. We wanted to make sure that the path back to college was wide and easily available. Finally, it was important for students to know they could succeed.

The program, branded as Back to Bama, launched in 2008 and has exceeded our expectations on many levels. With a strong graphic identity and tag line (Back to Bama… you still belong here), the program awards a scholarship for the “first course back.”

What better way to welcome a student than to provide financial support! Interested students work directly with a program coordinator to explore options for returning, clarify goals and apply for the scholarship. The one-stop shopping concept keeps it simple for the student and instantly creates a personal connection back with the campus.

The Academic Second Opportunity option has been critical to help students realize that the academic hole they dug is not nearly as deep as they thought. The CCS program coordinator serves as a liaison with the academic units and works through initial questions about how the forgiveness option applies individually to each student’s experience. One can imagine the incredible sense of relief that the student feels when they learn about this option!

The support and cooperation from each academic college has been exceptional. As provost, Dr. Bonner sent a strong message out to the colleges that the institution’s goal would be to work creatively and personally with these students, many of whom had been away for decades. Students received consideration for course substitutions and exceptions to enable moves to new catalog requirements, and registrars worked across college boundaries to identify new solutions for moving the student towards graduation. It was a team effort from the beginning.

The beauty of this program is that it can be easily borrowed and adapted. We have shared the structure and implementation strategies with colleagues and colleges across the country. In fact, there is an Ivy League institution that modeled it. The message is simple yet powerful. It can be tweaked to your institution’s programs, mission, goals and budget. It has tremendous power to create goodwill with your alumni base and it identifies prospective students who already have allegiance to the institution. With each scholarship awarded, the number of lives changed grows.

The success stories are plentiful and truly remarkable. The first graduate from Back to Bama was a student who left UA in the fall of his senior year. A native of New Orleans, his family was devastated with damages from Hurricane Katrina. He left school to help his grandfather rebuild the family business, and like many others, never returned. He was one course shy of graduation. Three years later he learned about Back to Bama and was able to take an online course and finally earn his degree from The University of Alabama. With each graduate is another remarkable story—another person filled with a sense of hope and accomplishment. Since this first student in 2008 to fall 2015, Back to Bama has Awarded 803 grants which totals over $825,000 to help students finish the degrees they started.

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