Getting students back in the door

By Patricia Erjavec

The Return to Earn program at a Colorado community college is getting students re-engaged and re-enrolled.

Attracting students who have the capability to complete a degree or certificate has never been an issue at Pueblo Community College (PCC); however, retaining students who face a plethora of social cognitive hurdles – 60 percent of whom are first-generation college students – is a challenge.

In addition, PCC has come to realize that when a student drops out of college because of life challenges, returning to finish a degree poses just as many barriers – mostly financial. Seventy percent of PCC students qualify for federal financial aid and if a student leaves the college prior to successfully completing coursework, they must repay the college for any financial aid awarded before they can be re-admitted.

It’s a startling fact: More than 1,500 students who have withdrawn from PCC within the past two years had accumulated at least 40 credits and had a GPA of 2.5 or higher. If PCC is to actively contribute to providing individuals with the education necessary to fill the ever-growing skills gap, we must find ways to re-engage with these students who have so much potential!

To address this, the Return to Earn program was initiated. Since its inception in 2016, 52 students have been re-engaged and re-enrolled. The average amount of college debt owed was $800 and the average age of the student is 34. Most surprisingly, the average number of credits already earned was 69.5. The reasons these students dropped out are primarily family-related.

Students given a second chance through Return to Earn are provided a scholarship that pays off the debt owed to the college as long as they enroll in the necessary courses to complete their degree, regularly attend class and maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher. In addition, if financial aid is not appropriate or has been exhausted, scholarships have been provided for the remaining coursework thanks to the generosity of various community donors. As with all students, numerous wraparound services are provided, e.g., tutoring, mentoring, food and transportation.

The students engaged in this program have demonstrated the intrinsic motivation necessary to persevere, persist and complete.  At PCC, we refer to this as Grit, Guts, Glory!

Eighteen Return to Earn students have since graduated. Another 25 are set to graduate in the spring, two in summer, and three in fall 2017. Degrees have been awarded, or soon will be, in dental hygiene, nursing, welding, psychiatric technician, civil engineering technology, occupational therapy assistant, physical therapist assistant, business management, associate of general studies, and associate of arts.

This program, to date, has yielded a 92.3 percent success rate. What a return on investment; what a gift to the student; what a coup for our community! Barriers aside, the intrinsic motivation demonstrated by this initial cohort of students is to be commended. We at PCC are thrilled to have discovered yet another means of placing these individuals into the workforce as highly skilled, highly educated, contributing members of society.

Patricia Erjavec

Patricia A. Erjavec, Ph.D., is president of Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colo.