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Research: Indiana’s College “Comebackers” a Worthy Investment

A majority of returning college students stay continuously enrolled until they finish their degree. (Adobe Stock)
A majority of returning college students stay continuously enrolled until they finish their degree. (Adobe Stock)
September 4, 2020

INDIANAPOLIS - The road to a college degree isn't always a direct path, and new research suggests adult students who are "giving it another go" are finding it worth the effort.

A report from think-tank New America and the Graduate! Network examines so-called "comebackers " - returning college students who get back on track, preserve their credits and earn their degree.

Report co-author Iris Palmer - senior advisor for higher education and workforce with the Education Policy program at New America - said their return to campus is driven by deeply intrinsic and personal reasons beyond career advancement, including finishing what they started, and showing their family what they're capable of.

"A significant number of these 'comebackers' re-enrolled in college and graduated immediately because the hurdles that they were presented with were administrative and financial," said Palmer. "This is an incredibly capable group of people; they have a system that has been stacked against them in a lot of ways."

Palmer said the researchers discovered that stops throughout their college career were actually a sign of perseverance in a comebacker, as they were often waiting for a more opportune time to resume their education.

Common barriers to returning are obligations, financial challenges and administrative hurdles.

Of the comebackers who got back on track and then graduated, 69% stayed continuously enrolled until they finished. And Palmer said a majority who have graduated said the support from faculty and their family was crucial.

"Some of the things that were most helpful were having a really strong relationship with their faculty," said Palmer. "And having those teachers help show them through their college experience and honor their experience outside of the classroom - particularly in the world of work, but also with their families."

Indiana's 'You Can. Go Back.' campaign is highlighted in the report for encouraging adults to complete their unfinished degrees. Commissioner of Higher Education Teresa Lubbers said state leaders have recognized that increasing the number of workers with degrees and credentials is critical to meet the needs of the future economy.

"But what became clear is that we also had a significant number of people who did not have a quality credential at all that was aligned to the needs of the economy, or the opportunity for them to earn more than minimum wage,"said Lubbers. "And so, this Next Level Jobs program was started, focused on quality credentials and certificates."

The report also recommends targeted outreach to potential comebackers, streamlined application and enrollment processes, embedding certifications into degree programs, and more flexible financial aid.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation

Disclosure: Lumina Foundation for Education contributes to our fund for reporting on Education. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - IN