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For some former college students, the pandemic opened a door to finish their degrees

Some universities are turning more attention to those who dropped out, a swath of the population that needs degrees now more than ever, experts say

University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski on Oct. 13. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

When Kelly Martin Broderick, 40, left the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2014, she was just five classes short of graduating.

Her initial entry at the university in 2012 marked her second time enrolling at a four-year university and third time at any postsecondary institution. But as is the case for more than 36 million adults who started college but do not finish, life got in the way.

“I left because I needed to work full time,” Broderick said. Finances became an issue, and her father was having health problems.

School stayed on the back burner until the pandemic hit and Broderick lost her job at a Baltimore theater. Then she got a letter from UMBC inviting her back to finish her degree in gender, women’s and sexuality studies.

Broderick’s return to UMBC came as some universities began turning more attention to students who left school before earning a degree, in part, as a way to turn around enrollment declines during the pandemic. For some former students, the push came at the right time.

“A college degree is more valuable than it even was before the pandemic,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on expanding access to postsecondary education. For example, just 7,000 of the 916,000 jobs added back by the economy in March went to adults with high school diplomas but no college degree.

Many left behind in this recovery have something in common: No college degree

The shift to virtual learning during the pandemic made college more accessible to millions of students who juggle school with full-time jobs, caregiving responsibilities or health issues.

Broderick, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), said school was more manageable when it took place online.

“The ability to take virtual classes absolutely changed it for me,” Broderick said. She earned her degree in May, the end of a journey that started in 1998. “If you would have told me a year ago I would have finally finished my degree in a year, I would have laughed.”

Broderick was one of 123 students who re-enrolled at UMBC last school year, said Yvette Mozie-Ross, vice provost for enrollment management and planning. The school for years has tried to court former students, but it was difficult to convince them to come back.

“We were offering them the same product or service that really led to them leaving, this whole brick-and-mortar, physical face-to-face experience that became a challenge for them,” Mozie-Ross said. But a solution emerged when the pandemic forced every class online.

The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers

Mozie-Ross and her team last summer identified 2,700 students who left UMBC in good academic standing with at least 60 credits and who did not earn degrees elsewhere. They quickly launched a “Finish Line” campaign, offering application fee waivers and other support to dozens of students.

Nick Martorelli, 39, was among those who came back last fall. He left the university in 2015 to be a full-time caregiver for his mother, who has been dealing with kidney failure.

“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking of ways I could finish my degree,” said Martorelli, who lives in St. Louis.

Martorelli didn’t start a new program in his hometown because he wanted to finish what he started at UMBC. But leaving his mother to return to Maryland was out of the question.

But “everything went virtual so I could stay at home in St. Louis and finish my degree in St. Louis,” Martorelli said. He finished his management of aging services degree in May. “It’s just opened up doors for career paths, opportunities to start a career in something I’m passionate about.”

Morehouse College to launch online program aimed at helping Black men with some credits finish degree

Similar initiatives to re-enroll former students have taken hold at Morehouse College in Atlanta, which in February announced it would launch an online undergraduate program with adults who never completed college in mind.

Morgan State University in Baltimore recently unveiled “Morgan Completes You,” a collection of 18 new interdisciplinary degrees programs designed for adults with some college experience but no degree.

David Wilson, the university’s president, said he has considered ways to bring former students back to campus for years. Then the issue became more urgent.

“What the pandemic did, it forced us overnight to flip the way we were thinking about offering instruction,” Wilson said. Administrators started to examine who was being laid off, what jobs they had and what skills could have helped them stay employed.

The economic collapse born from the pandemic has been particularly catastrophic for low-wage workers, those in the service sector and women. While the economy is recovering, progress has been slowest for mothers of school-age children, Black men and women, Hispanic men, Asian Americans, young adults and people without college degrees.

“That lead us to think about coming forward with a menu of unique interdisciplinary degrees that would target those individuals, so they are not the first fired,” Wilson said.

The message has already resonated with potential students. “We have just gotten so many inquiries from individuals who want to now come to Morgan, and they are saying, ‘We want Morgan to complete me, we want Morgan to complete what I started.’”

Wilson said the degrees — in fields including cybersecurity, health, engineering and computational science — are awaiting approval from the Maryland Higher Education Commission. He hopes to begin enrolling students from around the country in January.

Much remains unknown about the 40 percent of college students who do not finish their degrees within six years — what causes them to leave and what how colleges can adapt to keep them enrolled, said Ed Smith-Lewis, executive director of the United Negro College Fund’s Institute for Capacity Building.

UNCF hopes to collect more information about adult learners through a nationwide campaign to re-enroll 4,000 former students at historically and predominantly Black institutions, Smith-Lewis said. The organization, along with student success nonprofit InsideTrack, will also provide the students with personalized coaching.

The goal is not only to bring students back to school but also to keep them there until they graduate, according to Smith-Lewis.

“Black students need to achieve that bachelor’s degree,” Smith-Lewis said. “What we’re trying to solve for is equity gaps.”

The past roughly 15 months brought renewed interest in HBCUs, particularly after the murder of George Floyd and increased focus on racial injustice that ushered a wave of resources to the historically underfunded campuses, Smith-Lewis said.

Kamala Harris, BLM protests put a new spotlight on HBCUs. Many now hope for a financial reckoning.

Morgan State’s program, for example, will be funded in part by a $40 million gift the campus received from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in December, Wilson said.

Merisotis, from the Lumina Foundation, commended Morgan State’s approach and called on colleges and universities to evolve to meet student’s needs.

“Oftentimes tuition isn’t the primary barrier for them,” Merisotis said. “These community colleges and the four-year institutions need to do a better job of meeting these students where they are.”

Madalen Rubin, 31, left UMBC eight years ago amid financial problems. And ADHD led to “overwhelming my plate with things to do,” leaving Rubin “overloaded and burnt out,” she said.

She was just three classes short of graduating with a mathematics degree.

“I wish things would stay this accessible because people have to work and can’t be close to good colleges and have anxiety disorders or different needs,” Rubin said, who finished her program in May. “The accessibility of having everything online — that was the only reason I was able to go back or even think about going back.”