Skip to content

“Comebackers:” How Colleges Can Help Returning Students Re-Enroll and Graduate

In January 2024, we covered a survey by the online, professional, and continuing education association UPCEA that proposed incentives colleges could offer to help motivate stopped-out students to re-enroll. As reported by our feature article (Microcredentials: Can They Help Stop-Outs Graduate From College?), that study mainly focused on “some college, no degree” (SCND) students—those who had completed some college credits but hadn’t yet graduated. UPCEA’s report mainly recommended that colleges that wish to attract these potential students add two broad educational policy innovations to their course and program offerings as incentives: stackable microcredentials and academic credit for prior learning.

Now California Competes (CC), a nonpartisan Oakland-based policy and research organization, has released its own study about SCND re-enrollment incentives that offers a very different set of recommendations. Titled “From Setback to Success: Meeting Comebacker Students Where They Are,” the study examines a group of “comebacker” students, whom the authors define as those who left college but then returned to successfully complete their degrees.

According to the Education Data Initiative and federal sources, California is home to 6.6 million potential re-entry students between the ages of 25 and 64, meaning that about 16.4 percent of all U.S. college stopouts across the nation live in the Golden State. These folks disproportionately represent members of groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education; some of these groups include first-generation students without parents who attended college, as well as underinvested-in population segments. However, the report points out that if more of these prospective students earned bachelor’s degrees, they could be critical in addressing California’s workforce shortage.

In contrast to UPCEA’s survey of a random sample of 1,100 stopped-out, potential re-entry students from across the nation, California Competes studied a small sample of 50 successful comebackers from a variety of backgrounds who all re-enrolled in California state colleges and graduated with bachelor’s degrees. The researchers found that these comebacker graduates all overcame a broad range of formidable challenges, including financial barriers, academic hurdles, and a lack of support services. By studying this group and the specific steps they took to overcome their obstacles, the researchers aimed “to uncover strategies to help institutions better support these students and foster increased re-enrollment and degree attainment across the state.”

Based on those case study profiles, CC’s study recommends a series of specific, actionable steps that colleges can implement right away—without a lot of excessive planning or budget resources—to encourage such comebackers to re-enroll. The report organizes these recommendations into four main categories: adapt to meet the needs of today’s students, conduct strategic outreach, remove re-enrollment barriers, and provide ongoing support.

Adapt to Meet the Needs of Today’s Students

First, the authors recommend that colleges adapt and modernize their operations to provide flexibility that meets the needs of today’s returning students. Most nontraditional prospective students older than age 24 have employment and family obligations that prevent them from attending classes in person or during the traditional workday.

The willingness to provide older learners flexibility through technology at scale amounts to one of the most effective competitive advantages that led to the success of America’s largest “megaversity,” Southern New Hampshire University. As we pointed out in our recent feature article about the college’s president, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, SNHU’s flexibility inspired several other universities to successfully copy that approach, including Utah’s Western Governors University and two Arizona colleges, Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University. But so far, despite California’s leadership in technology innovation, none of the state’s universities has attempted to replicate the flexibility these colleges are able to offer to their working adult students at scale.

The California Competes researchers emphasize that for some re-entry students, enrollment in a fully online program provides the only way they can earn a credential or a degree. Accordingly, the authors recommend that colleges offer more flexible learning modalities and programs—and since online instruction amounts to the most flexible instructional modality available, it’s not a surprise that the terms “online” or “online education” appear 32 times in this 20-page report. In fact, the comebackers in the sample specifically asked for an expanded number and breadth of online courses, along with an increase in the number of fully online degree programs.

The researchers also point out that “interest in online courses is strong and growing, and it will be key to enrolling and reenrolling students.” Not only is that “strong and growing” assessment correct, but the latest 2024 data from a variety of sources suggests that’s actually quite an understatement.

For example, new federal data cited by astute education industry analyst Phil Hill shows that although demand for online instruction might currently amount to less than it was towards the end of 2020 during the height of the pandemic, the latest online enrollment levels are vastly greater than the pre-pandemic levels in late 2019. Interpreting Hill’s analysis, The Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay points out that:

There are far more students regularly logging into their computers for their classes now than in 2019, according to the latest federal data. In fact, there are so many more that online enrollment hit a new post-pandemic milestone in the fall of 2022 when a majority—54 percent—of college students took one or more of their classes online, a nearly 50 percent increase from the fall of 2019 when 37 percent of college students took at least one online class.

The sheer numbers are staggering: more than 10 million college students were learning online in the fall of 2022. Compared to before the pandemic, an additional 1.5 million students were taking all of their courses online and 1.35 million more students were taking at least one course online—even as the total number of college students fell by more than a million between 2019 and 2022.

“Online has become more the norm,” said Phil Hill, a consultant and market analyst of education technology in higher education, whose newsletter alerted me to the new milestone. “It’s almost like exclusive face-to-face instruction is becoming the exception.”

Moreover, Coursera’s fourth quarter 2023 earnings report cites aggregate online revenue around the world that increased about 12 percent over 2022’s year-over-year levels for their degree business unit, with degree enrollments up 22 percent. And Grand Canyon Education in Phoenix just reported a similar 10 percent year-over-year online enrollment increase as well.

California Competes’ report also recommends more flexible academic calendars. CC recommends restructuring academic calendars away from the Carnegie Foundation’s century-old traditional semester system:

It is highly disruptive to their progress if students miss the registration deadline and have to wait months to re-enroll, or if a life circumstance pops up in the middle of a 16-week semester and they need to stop out. By offering courses on a more accelerated academic term, colleges can increase entry points, offer more flexibility (leading to possibly fewer midterm withdrawals), and allow students to focus their time and attention on fewer classes at one time, all while taking the same number of classes per academic year, thus maintaining full-time status.

Conduct Strategic Outreach

California Competes’ authors next recommend that colleges reach out to their students who stop out. “Comebackers expressed a desire for personalized outreach from the college to determine why the student stopped out, explain the steps to re-enrollment, and steer them toward helpful resources,” says the report.

Colleges should also redesign their marketing materials and websites, plus rewrite promotional language to appear more inclusive. Successful comebackers told the researchers that they wanted to observe images of people like themselves in marketing brochures and on promotional websites, with a copywriting style that’s inclusive of a diverse selection of students.

The study also urges colleges to drop the outmoded term “academic probation,” or to at least reframe it so it seems less punitive. Many of the comebackers left college because they interpreted a probation warning from their school’s administration as a signal they couldn’t succeed instead of a signal that they needed to reach out to ask for help from their college’s academic advisors or assistant and associate deans.

Remove Re-enrollment Barriers

California Competes’ third recommendation involves removing barriers and obstacles that can stop students from re-enrolling. The report suggests that administrators might not consider how aspects of campus life that might seem like routine or inconsequential nuisances to currently enrolled students—like library fines—can serve an unfortunate dual purpose. For stopouts, such accumulated charges can turn into potentially challenging barriers that can block them from attempting to re-enroll. And that’s especially the case if a particular student is facing several kinds of these encumbrances amounting to a high dollar-value total.

Among the report’s many suggestions of ways that administrators can reduce or remove obstacles:

  • Waive application and re-enrollment requirements and fees
  • Forgive institutional debts, such as library or parking fines, along with more substantial debts as well
  • Offer payment plans and other forms of financial assistance
  • Provide in-person and online orientations that will help returning students reacclimate and readapt to the campus and to college life
  • Inform students during these orientations of helpful resources, such as both in-person and online support communities offered through social media
  • Offer support with educational technology that helps these students update their computer skills by adapting to newer ed tech systems and software tools offered online

Provide Ongoing Support

Fourth, the researchers also advise colleges to provide re-entry students, once enrolled, with ongoing support toward graduation. Among their recommendations:

  • Expand adult-focused academic advising by hiring dedicated advisors with experience as successful comebackers themselves
  • Leverage online resources to provide more flexible and convenient access through the college’s learning management system and other software tools
  • Facilitate a supportive community that enables peer support for comebackers on campus as well as online
  • Remove uncertainty in academic planning and tracking progress towards graduation through course management systems that offer automatic advance enrollment and “at-a-glance” graduation progress metrics

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.