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Pandemic paths lead to finished college degrees

Schools get creative online by The Washington Post | June 7, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

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.

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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 to the economy in March went to adults with high school diplomas but 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, said school was more manageable 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 persuade 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.

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."

FORCED TO ADAPT

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 degree 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 led 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 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.

The organization 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 the 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, said Smith-Lewis.

"Black students need to achieve that bachelor's degree," he said. "What we're trying to solve for is equity gaps."

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

Morgan State's program, for example, will be funded in part by a $40 million gift the campus received in December, Wilson said.

Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation commended Morgan State's approach and called on schools 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."

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