No one goes to school with the goal of dropping out
Too often, life gets in the way of college students being able to fulfill their goals. According to May 2019 graduation rate statistics from the Department of Education, approximately 60 percent of fall 2011 first-time college students completed their bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution within six years. But what about the other 40 percent?
Surprisingly, academics often aren’t the main reason why students leave school without graduating. According to insights we’ve heard directly from students, finances, job commitments, family issues, health problems and even difficulty fitting in can all lead to students dropping out. Is there a way to help students re-enter college, complete their credits and graduate?
For InsideTrack Retention Coach Anna Kern, this isn’t the end of the story, but rather the chance at a new beginning.
Getting back in the game
During her time as a retention coach, Anna worked with students one-on-one to help them clarify goals, identify potential obstacles, stay motivated to persist through challenges and reaffirm their commitment to graduation. She also helped students tap into available university resources — everything from financial aid and academic advising to tutoring, career services and student support.
“Once you leave school,” she said, “There’s never a good time to go back. There are always reasons for not becoming a student again and not ending up with a degree. The fact that they dropped out in the first place is an emotionally charged topic.”
She describes speaking with students who were often angry and distraught. “Many of them had left school on negative and upsetting terms, so it was important to really listen and be transparent.” Ultimately, she worked with students who were one to four sessions out of school and showed an interest in returning.
Asking the right questions
For Anna, it was important to find out why the students she worked with dropped out — and equally important to hear their motivation for thinking about re-enrolling.
So why did the students drop out? “For many of them, it was a lack of understanding about how financial aid works. There was often a major gap between what they thought was paid for versus what was really paid for — and what they had to pay for on their own.” She described a typical situation where a student believed financial aid meant all expenses were covered, but in reality, only tuition — or a part of tuition — were covered, with no funds for books, fees or living expenses. “Sometimes they felt ashamed — they didn’t want to ask questions for fear of feeling stupid. So instead of dealing with financial aid and other problems, they let things slide rather than dealing with them.”
And what made the students consider re-enrolling? “The reasons were very powerful,” she said, “particularly among first generation students. They wanted to change their path or change the trajectory for themselves and their family by earning a degree and being able to make more money. They had a lot at stake and put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed. Many of them worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. For them, education was the path to a better life.”
From fear and frustration comes focus and determination
According to Anna, she would use information provided by the school — such as academic status and any financial aid holds — as a way to start the conversation.
“When a student genuinely wants to return and dive back into school, it’s important that they understand that the school is ready to support them. Leaving school, for whatever reason, can be very emotional. So it’s important to normalize and legitimize their feelings, letting them know it’s OK.”
Once the connection was made, Anna got down to the business at hand — uncovering and discussing the challenges that caused the students to leave school, then helping them create a plan for successful re-entry. “I would ask them things like ‘What do you understand about your financial aid hold?,’ ‘Have you checked your emails?’, and ‘Who have you talked to and when did you talk with them.’ I needed them to have a clear idea of how things would work if they were to return.”
“My goal was to prepare and empower them to have informed conversations with the people at their school. That meant encouraging ownership, advocating for what they wanted, and the concept of asking questions until they fully understood the issue and got an answer,” she said. “I also wanted to make sure they had a clear idea as to why they wanted to re-enroll in school, since there were going to be hurdles to get back in.” She worked closely with a school advisor who would connect the students with the right people to answer their questions.
The power of determination
Anna says that she frequently worked with homeless students who had to go to the library to take their online courses. “They had no place to live, they were not in a safe and sound place, yet they were driven to get an education.” She cites their willpower and resolve as the reasons why they would choose to conquer their challenges and re-enroll in school.
Tips for re-engaging
For Anna, the re-entry conversation always found its way back to the “why” when speaking with students.
“Why did you start school in the first place? Why do you want to come back? Who can help keep you accountable? How can you keep this motivation at the forefront of your mind as you become a student again?”
She emphasized the fact that the same skills used to be a successful student will be the skills used everyday on the job once they graduated.
She also notes that unlike traditional students who begin their higher ed journey right out of high school, for those who had dropped out and were considering coming back, there was no one size fits all. “I remember coaching a woman who said ‘I’m not your average student. I’m 35 and I have a family and a full-time job.’ I assured her that she WAS the average student and that she’d be just fine.”