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Shannon L. Johnson, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Nathan Hendrickson, SUNY College at Brockport
Deanna Donaugh, Kent State University
Gregg Heinrichs, Eastern Michigan University

Nathan Hendrickson.jpgShannon Johnson.jpgOnly a handful of institutional-level degree completion programs currently exist responding to senior attrition, which is a missed opportunity for many colleges and universities.  A national movement of college completion agendas began in 2008 with encouragement from the Obama administration and funding from major foundations.  While the different initiatives took varying approaches, they all share the goal of increasing the number of individuals in the US with postsecondary degrees.  Initiatives can range from providing networking opportunities among different programs, examining the P-20 (preschool to bachelor’s degree) educational pipeline, organizing non-partisan policy agendas supporting college completion, and working with multiple colleges to identify students who have met degree requirements but not graduated as well as students close to finishing their degrees (Russell, 2011).  Recognizing the societal and institutional value of such initiatives, a few universities have established their own institutional programs to help students who stopped out of school to return and graduate.

Gregg Heinrichs.jpgDeanna Donaugh.jpgIn an effort to gain a better understanding of these degree completion initiatives, four different programs are discussed and compared: Eastern Michigan University, Kent State University, SUNY College at Brockport, and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.  The coordinators of these programs are working to understand similarities and differences between the programs and to, ultimately, conduct collaborative assessment.  Three of the programs were established in 2014 and developed, specifically, to reach out to students who stopped out in their senior year.  These three programs help students return to their previous major (if so desired) or into one of three interdisciplinary majors.  In contrast, the fourth program shifts students to an individualized major leading to a Bachelor of General Studies degree.  In addition, three programs focus on students who have earned 90 or more credit hours, while one program allows for students who have earned at least 85 credit hours.  Three of the four programs restrict the amount of time a student must have been out of school, ranging from the current semester to two years.  Moreover, each institution requires at least a 2.0 GPA to be eligible for participation.  While differences do exist between the four programs, there are more similarities among them.

By comparing these programs, several key strategies emerged that may be helpful in thinking about developing a degree completion program for stopped-out students.  The first approach is to provide outreach to this targeted population.  Many students want to return to school but do not know where to start, so letting them know about the program and their options is imperative.  Second is to streamline the readmission process and application timeline.  This can be accomplished by designating a single point of contact in key offices such as financial aid and records and registration.  The third critical element is to have one designated advisor who is available to work with and assist these students in thinking about returning to school and to show them their academic options.  These strategies may help get former students back to campus initially, but the work must continue in understanding the barriers that can prevent them from enrolling or persisting through graduation.

All of these programs work to reduce barriers to graduation.  The very limited research on senior attrition looks at why students left but not why they want to return or challenges to them returning (see Hunt, Boyd, Gast, Mitchell, & Wilson, 2012; Ma & Cragg, 2012; Mohr, Eiche, & Sedlacek, 1998; Neumann & Finaly-Neumann, 1989), so this information is primarily based on the coordinators’ interactions with returning seniors.  In an attempt to start collecting such data, UH Mānoa administered an IRB-approved survey in 2016 to all former students eligible to participate in the program with whom communication had been established (e.g., responded to outreach efforts, were referred to the program).  A total of 63 individuals out of 190 responded, yielding a 33% response rate (Johnson, in press).

Johnson’s (in press) survey results indicate that the primary obstacles to students returning and completing their degree were lack of funds and insufficient time due to working full time while the secondary challenges amounted to their needed courses only being offered on campus during the weekday.  Both coordinators’ interactions and survey results suggest that supplemental financial support helps to reduce impediments to returning and graduating by paying off a prior balance or providing grant opportunities.  As mentioned above, providing one advisor for the student to contact with any questions or concerns gives the students peace of mind and helps them feel connected to the university, instead of just feeling like a number.  Finally, flexibility in how students can earn their degree is needed.  This includes offering online courses for individuals who are now working full time or moved away, but flexibility could also mean thinking creatively about how students can meet various graduation requirements such as course substitutions, transient coursework, or interdisciplinary majors.  One survey respondent stated, “I think knowing my options was the biggest thing in giving me clarity.  [My advisor] did an excellent job as looking at all possibilities and laying out what was possible” (S. L. Johnson, personal communication, August 13, 2016).

Recruiting dropped-out and stopped-out students for these programs can be challenging for institutions.  A question often asked by other institutions is how to find student participants.  Students are discovered in a variety of ways.  One approach is to run a query in the campus student information system for individuals who have earned a certain number of credit hours and who are not registered for the upcoming academic term.  This action provides a list of students for possible outreach.  If needed, the initial query or data set produced can be narrowed down by additional factors such as academic year, credit hours, grade point average, or account holds.  Furthermore, the list can be made more accurate by being submitted to the National Student Clearinghouse and the National Change of Address databases.  Another way to locate students who meet the criteria for a program is via referrals.  These referrals can come from faculty, advisors, or even other students.  UH Mānoa has gone as far as beginning a marketing campaign in conjunction with the university’s communications office, producing a short video, sending out news releases, and sponsoring radio ads (see “Second time’s the charm for students to complete their degree at UH Mānoa,” 2018).

Regardless of how a student and their situation is discovered, it is the advisor who will aid and provide guidance for the student along their journey to degree completion.  Indeed, academic advising is integral to a student’s success and even more true for the populations targeted by these programs.  A critical element of advising degree completion students is to not judge them by their past academic performance or for stopping out.  Many of these students already feel guilty about any bad grades on their transcript and for giving up and not completing their degree.  Using such models as proactive and appreciative advising, the academic advisors provide encouragement and support, helping them navigate the challenges of returning to school and the university system.  The advisor can also assist students in thinking about time management strategies for adding schoolwork back into their ongoing life commitments.

Each student decides to return for his or her own reasons.  Some students return to successfully achieve this major life accomplishment: earning a bachelor’s degree.  Other students need a degree in order to obtain a job promotion or raise.  The advisor's strategy is to listen to each student's unique story, to discover each student's individual goals, and to assist each student in achieving those goals.

The impact of these programs can be seen not only with the students’ distinct stories but also through graduation numbers, additional institutional credits to overall enrollment numbers, and increased financial revenue.  One program offers scholarships of $500 per semester that can be used to pay an outstanding financial obligation to the institution or future tuition.  Another program partnered with their institution’s advancement office to establish a fund with alumni donations that pays up to $1,000 to cover a prior balance or future costs.  Students having funds to pay outstanding balances becomes important, allowing them to register and use financial aid to cover future costs since financial aid only pays going forward.  Table 1 summarizes significant positive outcomes for these four institutions with degree completion programs as of July 2018.  Another UH Mānoa survey respondent declared, “Put it this way . . . if it wasn't for this program, I would not have my degree right now” (Johnson, in press).  The bottom line is that these degree completion programs change lives when institutions reach out and help students graduate.

Table 1.  Impact of Degree Completion Programs


Graduation Numbers

Total Enrolled Institutional Credits

Institutional Tuition Dollars Brought In

Student Financial Obligations Resolved

Eastern Michigan University

560 since 2014

14,538 since 2013


(since 2013)

Not tracked

Kent State University

239 since 2014

1,673 (average)


Not tracked

(but awards scholarships)

SUNY College at Brockport

355 since 2014


$428,900 (since Summer 2016)

$39,000 (some covered by scholarship)

University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa

124 since 2014





Shannon L. Johnson
Program Coordinator, Come Back to Mānoa
Outreach College
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Nathan Hendrickson
Completion Specialist
Academic Affairs
SUNY College at Brockport

Deanna Donaugh
Associate Director
Academic Engagement and Degree Completion
University College
Kent State University

Gregg Heinrichs
Academic Advisor
University Advising and Career Development Center
Eastern Michigan University


Hunt, P. F., Boyd, V. S., Gast, L. K., Mitchell, A., & Wilson, W. (2012). Why some students leave college during their senior year. Journal of College Student Development, 53(5), 737–742. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2012.0068

Johnson, S. L.  (in press).  Why seniors leave and why they return: An exploratory case study.  Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice.

Ma, Y., & Cragg, K. M. (2012). So close, yet so far away: Early vs. late dropouts. Journal of College Student Retention, 14(4), 533–548.

Mohr, J. J., Eiche, K. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1998). So close, yet so far: Predictors of attrition in college seniors. Journal of College Student Development, 39(4), 343–354.

Neumann, Y., & Finaly-Neumann, E. (1989). Predicting juniors’ and seniors’ persistence and attrition: A quality of learning experience approach. The Journal of Experimental Education, 57(2), 129–140.

Russell, A. (2011). A guide to major U.S. college completion initiatives (Higher Education Policy Brief). Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://www.aascu.org/policy/publications/policymatters/2011/collegecompletion.pdf

Second time’s the charm for students to complete their degree at UH Mānoa. (2018, February 6). Retrieved from http://www.hawaii.edu/news/2018/02/05/come-back-to-manoa-program/


Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, S.L., Hendrickson, N., Donaugh, D., & Heinrichs, G. (2018, September). Degree completion programs for returning undergraduate seniors. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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