There are more than 3 million Black men with college credits that never amounted to a degree, according to the Census Bureau. Some left school to raise families, enlist in the military or because they could no longer afford to continue. Returning can be difficult as the years go by and life gets in the way.

Morehouse College wants to help. The historically Black men’s college in Atlanta is rolling out an online undergraduate program this summer designed for adult learners with some college experience under their belt.

The idea came to David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, after meeting former students at alumni events who left before earning a credential but remained tied to the Morehouse community.

“They had a desire to finish their degree, but didn’t have the ability to stop what they were doing in the world and go back to school,” Thomas said in an interview. “We owe it to the world to amplify our impact and that means … impacting the world without the world having to come to us. This is us going to the world.”

On Tuesday, Morehouse announced its foray into online education with a bachelor’s degree completion program that will start with three offerings, including business administration. It will offer degrees to men with credits from other colleges and former Morehouse students who stopped out.

The private college is hoping to bring back at least 500 Morehouse men within the next five years. Thomas is confident the school can reach twice as many people and expand its reach into the broader universe of men seeking to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Institutions across the country are trying to reengage the more than 36 million Americans who left college without earning a credential. The University of North Carolina system has contacted more than 2,000 students who stopped out to guide them through re-enrollment. The pilot program, which ran from October to December 2019, resulted in 62 enrolling the following spring term. Meanwhile, the Community College of Denver has created self-paced courses for returning students to have an easier path to a degree.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found many Americans with some college and no degree are nearing middle age, with a median age of 39 to 42. Researchers say about 10 percent of the population of people who have stopped out are poised to attain a credential because they already have finished two years of postsecondary education within the past 10 years.

Thomas said that many of the former students he has met are often more focused than 18-year-olds who arrive on campus but that they need far more flexibility than the residential college provided. Morehouse Online, as the new venture is dubbed, will offer eight-week courses to allow students to take a couple of classes while balancing the demands of work and family.

Morehouse will charge $600 a credit for its online offerings, compared with $1,115 per credit that residential undergraduates pay. Thomas said online students will still have access to career advising and the professional networks that Morehouse is known for. Admissions, he said, will be just as rigorous for those returning to college as it is for new entrants.

Morehouse is partnering with 2U, an online program manager, to run the new platform. The college will have control over developing curriculum, hiring faculty, providing instruction, setting admissions standards and admitting students.

Traditional brand-name colleges entering online education are often met with skepticism from campus-based academics concerned about the quality of the education. Thomas said he sought faculty members’ input before moving ahead with the venture and was pleased that they voted in favor of the new program.

“Morehouse has the moral authority to provide the Good Housekeeping seal of Black male excellence,” Thomas said. “What we will demand of our online students will be comparable to what we expect of our on-campus students.”

He added: “We have the advantage of working with people who have life experience, so they will use this opportunity with much more intentionality than a 17-year-old does when they show up on campus.”

Online education has become a burgeoning market for public and nonprofit private colleges, many of which focus on graduate programs that require less investment and have bigger yields than bachelor’s degree programs. Graduate students are not heavily reliant on advising services and can borrow up to the full cost of attendance. As a result, universities at times use online programs to subsidize other academic offerings.

While Thomas is not ruling out expanding into graduate education, he said that Morehouse will, for now, focus on its core strengths. His goal is for the online program to generate enough revenue to cover its expenses and support faculty research and hiring new faculty.

Morehouse Online is part of a broader strategic plan for the 154-year-old school to grow its footprint that also includes expanding study abroad initiatives and recruiting more international students.

In the past year, Morehouse has enjoyed a series of multimillion-dollar donations from philanthropists, some spurred into action after George Floyd’s death sparked national protests against police brutality and racial inequality. The visibility of historically Black colleges and universities like Morehouse is at a high and the Biden administration has promised greater investment in the sector. Vice President Harris is an HBCU alumna, a graduate of Howard University.

Thomas, like many HBCU leaders, has welcomed the attention but remains focused on the strength and growth of Morehouse beyond this moment.

“We want to become the voice — nationally and globally — around the education and development of Black men and men of color,” Thomas said. “And to do that, we cannot be dependent on the episodic nature of foundation and government funding.”