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The Graduate! Network: From Stop Out to A Degree


The Graduate! Network has issued a new report on the journey of a “Comebacker” student. The Network, a nationwide movement that targets adult learners and brings them back to college, brought together a panel of experts and three current and former students to discuss the obstacles faced by returning students and ways to create a more equitable education environment.

Eva GamezEva Gamez

“Comebacker” students are usually Black, Latinx, or a person of color. Seventy-eight percent (78%) come from a household that earns less than $42,000 a year, and 64% identify as female. “Comebacker” students are typically in their early to late thirties who started their college career years ago but, for various reasons, stopped out of their educational journey.

The key to adult student success is support: financial, educational, environmental, and cultural, panelists noted during a virtual conversation held on Tuesday. 

The estimated number of American adults who stop out of college could be as high as 36 million. Commonly, those adults are also paying off student debt. Getting those students who stopped out back into education not only benefits them but the society and economy at large by addressing the gender and race wealth gaps, said Dr. Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Post-Secondary Education.

“The most direct correlation to a healthy economy is a healthy workforce,” said Thompson. “We can’t get there without the ‘Comebackers’ as part of the return on the investment.”

The Graduate! Network also connects non-profits and corporations to institutions to create more funding and support for non-traditional students. Navigators, the Network’s term for an advisor, meet with “Comebacker” students and help them identify the right institution and field of study for their goals and needs. They also help students complete their applications and review transcripts, and help them manage past debt that may be owed to the institution they stopped out from. The report argues for ending institutional debt policies.

Craig Toombs, a “Comebacker” student and recent graduate from the University of Missouri Kansas City, said that grief over his mother dying caused him to drop out.

“I was nine credits away from graduating. I wasn’t offered any grief support. I shut down,” Toombs said.

He owed money to his old institution, but he was able to get help from an advisor about how to take on the debt he owed. He was able to use scholarship funds to pay it off. He graduated in 2019 with his bachelor's degree in political science.

The one-on-one connection to an advisor was deeply important to Eva Gamez. She connected back to her education by reaching out to the nonprofit Upgrade in San Antonio.

“Being a first-time student myself, not knowing too much or having the experience, I had no example from my family. It made it overwhelming,” said Gamez. Her advisor from Upgrade “never left me once in the process. She’d call me to check up, see how it was going, ask how my classes were.”

When Gamez arrived at Wayland Baptist University to tour the campus, a professor was standing there at the doorway, waiting for her. “I’ll never forget it,” she said.

She said that the professor took the time to get to know her and encouraged her to pursue a study of social work. She graduated last year with her BAS in Human Services, and she is hoping to pursue her master’s degree.

“Comebackers” who used support systems like these, provided by The Graduate! Network, are almost four times as likely to re-enroll. They graduate at a rate of five percentage points higher than those who don’t take advantage of the network of support.

The report identifies several ways in which schools can become better recruiters and supporters of “Comebacker” students. The Network encourages institutions to specifically recruit adult learners, make admission processes more accommodating for different experiences, and be transparent about what’s needed for completion.

Kimberly Lowe SawyerKimberly Lowe Sawyer

Kimberly Lowe Sawyer started back to school 12 years ago, when her daughter was in first grade. She always imagined that it would take her a long time to earn her bachelor’s degree, but she never imagined that, after she finally graduated in 2011, she would keep going back for more.

She earned her master’s degree in Human Services in 2012, and she’s currently pursuing her doctoral degree at Holy Family University. Her dissertation focuses on the ways in which higher education can become more welcoming to nontraditional students.

Sawyer said that what most adult learners need from their institutions is validation.

"Validation is the beginning of opening doors,” she said. “Entering into college is a transformational event. You go into a whole other culture, environment, and language,” said Sawyer.

Nontraditional students, she said, need that support.

"We need to feel we’re part of the college community," she said. "I know firsthand that without the connections of external [non-profits] or front-line administrators, many of us won’t complete the path. Without connection from the beginning, we’re in a vulnerable state.”

The report advised schools to try to invest more into their “Comebacker” students, creating specific grants for students returning to study or those facing significant barriers to education. Micro-grants can be created to help get students through surprise disruptions, like a car breaking down, that can make a student have to stop out. Grants can also be used to offer as much help as possible with non-tuition costs to help cover things like textbooks or childcare.

To further cultivate a supportive campus environment for “Comebacker” students, the report notes that schools should continue to offer a wide range of classes at unique times, giving the student a chance to attend class whenever or wherever they are. 

Thompson said that it was important for schools to not look at students as “one size fits all.” Institutions, he said, need to create “a set of strategies that go straight to a student academically, socially, emotionally, and culturally.”

 Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected] 

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