California adults with some college, no degree (SCND) are about to receive a leg up. Four higher education organizations have come together to target and return SCND students, helping them complete their degrees and keep California on track to economic success.
The coalition includes California Competes, a higher education and workforce research nonprofit offering guidance to state policy makers; InsideTrack, an organization that offers personalized coaching to help students succeed; ProjectAttain!, a nonprofit helping working-age adults return to and complete college in the Sacramento region; and the Institution for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonprofit, national research organization working to increase opportunities in higher education for all.
“I think there’s an opportunity to address the challenges we face through greater collaboration,” said Kai Drekmeier, founder and chief development officer at InsideTrack. “We realize that, at InsideTrack, there are things we do well and other areas that aren’t our lane.”
The collaboration, called California Reconnect, will first focus its attention on areas and communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and other economically distressed regions. The organization aims to work with 30 institutions over the next three years to identify their SCND students who stopped out. Once identified, California Reconnect will reach out to those students, learn about their current situation, identify their career goals, and find what obstacles caused them to stop out. As SCND students return to school, coaches with InsideTrack will ensure they are supported and that institutions have the capacity to see them to completion.
The data collected and analyzed by California Reconnect will be shared across the state to help meet California’s future economic needs. By 2030, the Public Policy Institute of California predicts that 40% of all jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. There are currently four million SCND students in the state, aged 25 to 54.
Dr. Su Jin Jez, executive director of California Competes, said her organization and ProjectAttain! have been working for years to address the SCND population in California. Now, with the help of two national organizations, she hopes their combined efforts will significantly move the needle.
“California Competes has been doing research for a while, but it gives us high-level findings, like [finding that] childcare is a challenge [for SCND students],” said Jez. “But what we want to understand is the next level down—you hear childcare is a challenge, ok, so, what do you do? Is it needing more campus childcare, or more seats in campus childcare? Is it more after school programs, or the cost of childcare? This is where we want to get down to the nitty gritty.”
Jez said the findings from California Reconnect will allow her to tell leadership, from college presidents to city mayors, exactly what SCND and other adult students need in order to succeed.
IHEP president and CEO Mamie Voight said that California Reconnect will share all its findings and data, not only with higher education policy stakeholders but other institutions around the state.
“A key component of the campaign will include supporting institutions in their efforts to remove barriers, such as reducing or waiving unpaid fees, facilitating the timely release of transcripts, and awarding credit for prior learning, and other wrap-around services,” said Voight.
IHEP resources like its degree mining tool, which helps institutions identify students eligible for credentials they have not yet been awarded, will be crucial to the process of identifying and re-engaging SCND students.
California Reconnect wants to bring back SCND students through an institution-agnostic approach, which allows SCND students to return to an institution of their choice. Research from The National Student Clearinghouse, which collects and analyzes data from 97% of U.S. institutions, shows 62% of students who return to complete their degree do not return to the institution where they started.
For Jez, being institution-agnostic is part of California Reconnect’s plan to “center the Californian” in their quest to bring students back to postsecondary education. But Drekmeier acknowledged that some institutions might be reticent to participate in a program that might not boost their enrollment. Enrollment has fallen across the state since the pandemic in both four- and two-year institutions, but community college enrollment has dropped to its lower numbers in 30 years, according to EdSource, a California-based educational nonprofit.
“Ideally we will convince most or all of the participating institutions to allow for this institutional agnostic recruitment, but we won’t make it a requirement,” said Drekmeier. “We recognize that some institutions will feel that their priority of getting enrollment up will make it too scary to take such an approach.”
The bottom line, Drekmeier added, is to bring students back and rebuild the trust that higher education can and will serve them well.
“We need to be sincere that we’re really taking the students’ interests to heart with every effort of enrollment,” said Drekmeier. “Some students feel, ‘[That institution] just wants me back for my tuition money.’ We need to overcome that.”
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article misnamed California Competes. The correction has since been made.