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The Comeback: How Colleges Can Re-Engage Students with Some Experience but No Degree—Part One

Reconnecting with students and ensuring they earn their degrees not only bolsters their skills, but provides an opportunity for the institution to learn as well.
Reconnecting with students and ensuring they earn their degrees not only bolsters their skills, but provides an opportunity for the institution to learn as well.

Nearly 40 million Americans have attended college or university, but never earned a degree, diploma or certificate. Finding ways to bring them back to finish their programs or transfer skills they’ve picked up since into new areas can revolutionize the workforce.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do colleges and universities better target adults who have some college experience but no credential?

Lawrence Rouse (LR): We received information from Carolina Demography that described prior students in our service area. The data were amazing—we had 39,000 prior students who started college but did not complete a degree or any type of credential. Of course, that was a large number for our institution, but we said, “How can we reach these individuals?” We began to look at some strategies to do that. We felt that we first probably need to reach out through targeted mailing, which we did. But we did not send the mailing to all 39,000 prior students.

We made the outreach manageable by trimming down the number of students we contacted. We looked at the individuals who attended a college or university in the last five years, which came out to about 1500 students. We did targeted mailing addressed to those students to say, “You’ve, you’ve had some college. Wouldn’t you like to come back and complete?” We also did a phone campaign, following up the postcard with a phone call to say, “What caused you to not complete your credential? How can we help you complete it? We’re here to do whatever we can whenever you’re ready to return to school.” I think outreach needs a personalized approach. You must learn more about what former students’ circumstances were and why they did not complete their education. We found that we were getting some traction on determining the circumstances and we were delighted with that.

Johnny Smith (JS): That’s exactly how we got started. And one thing that gave us a huge boost happened in April 2021, when we formed a partnership with the John M Belk Endowment. That’s when things really took off. We became one of the NC Reconnect Colleges and began working with Inside Track, who called some of these adult learners on our behalf, as well as the John M. Belk Endowment, who offered us grants to really work with this specific population. Because of President Rouse’s leadership, we were able to create the PCC Adult Learning Center (ALC), which is a great place to get those adult learners in and make them feel welcome to the campus. We’ve also hired early alert specialists to provide wraparound support to our adult learners.

We’ve developed an intake form to make sure that we personalize and customize the learning experience for each adult learner because we know they have different needs, including work, childcare situations, transportation and alternate schedules.

LR: We began trying to do this work ourselves, the marketing, the phone calls. But it worked out very well when we were able to get our marketing department and Vision Point to formulate the marketing. And we had Inside Track to conduct the calls. With the addition of VisionPoint and Inside Track, professionals conducted the outreach efforts. And they did a wonderful job because they were very experienced at it. As Johnny mentioned, we were the first adult learning center, then others in our cohort said, “Hey, what a great idea. Let’s try to follow that model.”

Evo: How do you make strategic decisions about bringing in partners and focusing staff time and energy versus placing financial resources against partnering?

LR: We looked at barriers for adult students. We questioned ourselves: Are we treating adult students any different from high school students? We were not differentiating between our student populations. We began to look at what adults face that have caused them not to complete their education and successfully earn their credential. And we came up with several different things: transportation, childcare and aging parents for whom the adult students had to provide care.

Sometimes it was personal illness, food insecurity, housing insecurity—all these things came up. Of course, we could not address all these issues, but we did identify the in-house services we provide to students and the services for which we have to partner with other agencies. We came up with a nice balance, but Johnny mentioned an intake form. And we also wanted to know that not every returning adult needs the same services. So, we began asking potential students what they needed. And then we could have a plan to get them those resources and over those barriers.

We got a lot of support from the community. We already had community partners providing services to which we could refer students. We also developed a resource guide that we could just hand students or that they could get on our website. The resource guide provides a listing of all the community resources if they need them. We also have intervention specialists who talk with students about how to access these various services. So, wraparound services were one thing we took a very close look at, looking at the needs, the barriers, then deciding what we can do internally and what we need to farm out to our partners.

JS: We realized that although we have robust personnel here at PCC, we certainly needed some help with calling campaigns and what we call achievement coaching. That’s where a student may have stopped out and then we’re asking them, “Hey, why did you stop out? Is there something we can do?” And if it is, we refer that student to his/her advisor to see what we can do to get them plugged back in.

We found out that many students had prior balances. Some of them owed $50. Some of them owed $200. That prior balance was keeping students unenrolled or really hindered their ability to enroll. So, we were able to come up with money to pay off some previous balances. Thus, the adult learners were able to re-enroll and get their financial aid restored.

Another initiative that helped students reengage with the college was our Better Skills, Better Jobs Fair held in October 2021. We brought in adult learners and the high schools and employers from around the Eastern region under one roof—the Greenville Convention Center. Over 600 people were there to talk about adult learning efforts, why it’s so important to connect adult learners to the workforce and connect the workforce to possible employees because we were in an employee shortage at that time and still are. This regional event was made possible by the John M. Belk Endowment, Pitt CC, Greenville ENC Alliance, Pitt County Economic Development. 

Evo: When you look at the kinds of programming adult students are coming back to, what offerings are most engaging for this audience when it comes to continuing their education or completing that credential?

LR: We’re finding that several students are coming back, looking at some of our short-term workforce training programs. And these short-term workforce credentials run the gamut, from the technical fields, vocational fields, commercial driver’s license, welding—all of the programs that fall under our Continuing Education umbrella. But we’re also finding those students are coming back to finish a degree as well. A number of minority women were able to complete degrees in their first or second semester back at school, which we thought was a great result. But one of the things we try to do is also give adult students some career counselling to help them find out what their interests are.

We explore with students the possibility that the program or career they were in previously is no longer their goal. We try to also figure out what programs might fit their current goals. It’s a gamut from the short term. And when I say short-term workforce, these are programs through which they can earn certification and then go directly to work such as bioworks. We have a fairly large bio-pharma industry here made up in part of large companies that hire a lot of people. Bioworks allows students to get entry-level jobs. They go to work, but we’re encouraging them to not stop there but to continue their education once they’re able to get a higher degree, diploma or certificate.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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