As one of the largest university systems in the U.S., the City University of New York (CUNY) can be a launching pad into a successful career for the 270,000-plus students it enrolls. Yet the common issue of retention often stands in its way.
Around one-third of full-time, first-time freshmen who started an associate degree program with CUNY in the fall of 2016 left the college within a year. And about 13.5% of full-time, first-time bachelor's students dropped out in the same period.
CUNY's retention rates are better than most, but they still reflect a big issue in higher education. More than 1 million college students drop out each year, a trend that cost colleges $16.5 billion in lost revenue in the 2010-11 academic year alone, according to a report from the Educational Policy Institute.
"It's a population that hasn't been focused on at all," said Anne Kubek, chief operating officer at ReUp Education, a San Francisco-based startup that helps colleges reenroll students who left without completing their degrees. "If you stop out at most universities, that's it. They don't connect with you. They don't follow up with you, you never hear from them again unless they're looking for monies owed."
That may be changing. Several headwinds — including sagging enrollment, diminished state support and a greater focus on student outcomes — are pushing colleges to bring back their stopped-out students instead of focusing solely on replacing them with new recruits.
At CUNY, officials have looked to ReUp Education for help bringing back some of its lost students. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the company selected the 25-campus system as the winner of a nationwide competition to receive its services for free. In exchange, the company gets to hone its reenrollment methods on some 20,000 former CUNY students who never finished their degrees.
The results of the test, CUNY officials say, will be used to determine which strategies are best at bringing students across the finish line.
"It was clear to us that the notion of working with a partner ... was going to be both incredibly instructive and helpful from a research design perspective," said Angie Kamath, CUNY's dean for continuing education and workforce development. CUNY's size requires it to be "really scientific and research-oriented in order to try things out that could eventually scale," she added.
Reaching out to stopped-out students
Launched in 2015, ReUp has turned reenrolling students into a science. Using predictive analytics and machine learning, the company can pinpoint the students who are most likely to enroll again and reaches out to them via text messaging, phone calls and email.
ReUp picks who to contact first based on factors such as how long they've been stopped out, how many credits they have left to complete and their support network, though the company eventually works its way through the entire roster of stop-outs.
The company's 18 success coaches talk with interested students to learn why they left, work through issues that could prevent their return and support them once they reenroll. "It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back," Kubek said. "We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation."
ReUp gets paid through a revenue-share agreement for each semester a student is enrolled. So far, the company has recovered $25 million in tuition revenue by helping reenroll some 8,000 students across about 20 colleges through the spring 2019 semester. Those results have garnered the backing of investors, who recently poured $6 million into a Series A funding round meant to help ReUp expand its partnerships, EdSurge reported.
“It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back. We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation.”
Chief operating officer, ReUp Education
Kubek credits ReUp's early success to its blended use of automated messaging and human support coaches. "We really look to the technology to help us reach out to students at a large scale, engage with them on a regular basis and help manage rosters for coaches so (they) are doing things only humans can do," she said.
ReUp began its work with CUNY last June, and it expects to wrap up its test around October. Preliminary reenrollment figures are not available, Kamath said.
However, the system has gleaned several findings about its stopped-out students through the effort. For one, Kamath said, students tend to be motivated by two things: wanting to finish what they started and having upward economic mobility.
"Social mobility is what we do," she said. "Being able to make students really change that notion of, 'I flunked out,' or 'I left school' or 'I dropped out,' ... and flip that to say, 'I want to finish what I started, I want a better economic future, I want social mobility for my family,' is really important."
Meeting students where they are
While the right messages are critical, it's also important to examine why stopped-out students left college in the first place.
InsideTrack, a Portland, Oregon-based company that specializes in student coaching, has made reenrollment a key part of its services. Along with contacting and coaching stopped-out students through reentry, the company also advises colleges on areas they could improve to retain students.
For instance, in 2018, InsideTrack worked with UCLA Extension to reengage about 600 of the continuing education school's former students. About 260 responded to InsideTrack's messaging, and about 120 — or roughly 20% — eventually reenrolled.
Of those who didn't return, about one-third said they didn't have time for school because of work or family responsibilities. Others said they had planned to take time off school all along — a common reason for stopping out that more colleges should be aware of, said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack.
"A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I’ve got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"
Director, The University of New Mexico's Graduation Project
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work," he said. "If they did, they'd be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out so they could go through it with intention and come back well-prepared."
It's also critical to keep in mind the obstacles specific student populations may encounter. For example, Jarrat said several international students ran into issues with their visas while attending UCLA Extension.
At Excelsior College, a private nonprofit online school in New York catering to working adults, officials looked to InsideTrack to figure out why some of their students who are veterans had stopped out. This population faces several unique struggles, as many are working adults and may have doubts over whether they're cut out for college, said Chris Johnson, director of Excelsior's Center for Military and Veteran Education.
"We work with these underserved populations to show them that, 'Yes, of course you could pursue higher education,'" he said.
After contacting roughly 400 to 500 stopped-out veterans, InsideTrack unearthed a surprising reason why some left Excelsior. Throughout the admissions process, Johnson said, the center gives veterans intensive advising about their benefits and enrollment and evaluates whether they're eligible to apply prior credits to a degree.
But once they're handed off to an academic advisor, they generally aren't contacted for one to three weeks. "Many veterans were saying that's too long," Johnson said.
To remedy the issue, Excelsior is forging closer ties between admissions officials and advisors to create a streamlined pathway for veterans — "more of a VIP process," as Johnson calls it.
The steps to reenrollment may present barriers as well. For instance, outdated policies may require students to bring cash to the registrar's office in person or to provide their high school transcripts for admission. "If you're 40 years old and you've been out of school for 20 years, going back and finding your high school transcript is often not easy," Kubek said.
Other common pitfalls are unclear transfer policies or "convoluted" websites, Kubek added. Having a point of contact to guide students through admissions forms, information on the website and the academic advising process can be critical.
"These are the types of things that can be really helpful in breaking down the barriers for students to help them figure out how to come back to school," Kubek said.
Getting creative to reenroll students
Although working with third-party providers focusing solely on reenrollment can be helpful, some institutions are turning toward unorthodox partners or employing new policies to reenroll their stopped-out students.
In 2014, the State University of New York (SUNY) teamed up with a federal loan servicer to send a message to its students who had stopped-out and still had debt. If they returned, SUNY told them, they could avoid defaulting on their student loans.
The campaign proved successful, according to a local media report. About 20% of those who received the messages in the program's first year reenrolled in college, with around 78% of that group doing so at a SUNY campus.
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work. If they did, they’d be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out."
Senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth, InsideTrack
Moreover, the effort helped the system recoup more than $8.7 million in tuition revenue, SUNY officials said during the annual American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) conference in April.
"We don't have this unlimited pot of high school students," Patricia Thompson, assistant vice chancellor of student financial aid at SUNY, said at the conference. "We need to make sure we don't lose them somewhere in the process."
Other colleges have introduced financial incentives for returned students.
In 2016, for example, Colorado's Pueblo Community College introduced a plan that forgave students up to $1,000 in institutional debt if they reenrolled and finished one semester. More than 300 stopped-out students have since come back, bringing in nearly $350,000 in revenue, Pueblo officials said at the AACC conference.
Likewise, The University of New Mexico offers its reenrolled students up to $750 in tuition assistance each semester for two years through an initiative called The Graduation Project, which targets students who withdrew their senior year.
College officials use email blasts, mailing campaigns and phone calls to reach the students, directing them toward a website where they can fill out an interest form. From there, a student success specialist will guide them through the reenrollment process. In the fall of 2018, the effort helped reenroll roughly 120 students.
Corine Gonzales, director of The Graduation Project, echoed the reasons others gave for students leaving. Usually, life circumstances or financial obligations got in the way of students' studies and they never returned.
"Sometimes you'll get students who are one class away from graduating, but they just didn't finish," Gonzales said. "A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I've got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"