California Colleges Overlook Comebacker Students, New Study Reveals


A recent study conducted by California Competes, a nonpartisan policy and research organization, sheds light on the overlooked value of students who drop out of California colleges and proposes strategies for colleges to better support these individuals, referred to as "comebackers," in successfully completing their degrees.

(Photo : Pexels / Zen Chung)

The Overlooked Value of Comebacker Students

The report, titled "From Setback to Success: Meeting Comebacker Students Where They Are," highlights the challenges faced by comebacker students in re-enrolling and completing their education. According to Su Jin Jez, CEO of California Competes, colleges often complicate the return process for these students, creating unnecessary obstacles that hinder their educational journey.

Drawing insights from interviews with over 50 successfully returning students at Sacramento State and Shasta College, the study identifies various factors that impede a student's attempt to return to college. These obstacles include outstanding fines for library books and parking, the need to repeat the entire enrollment process, and disqualification for financial aid due to past academic performance.

The report underscores the equity implications of overlooking comebacker students, as many of them come from low-income or marginalized backgrounds. With more than 6 million Californians having attended college without obtaining a degree, addressing the needs of these students is crucial not only for their individual success but also for the state's economy.

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Addressing Obstacles Faced by Comebacker Students

Jennifer Liberty, a co-researcher involved in the study and a comebacker herself, emphasizes the importance of reaching out to these students and providing them with the necessary support to complete their education. Liberty, now pursuing a master's degree in psychology, understands firsthand the challenges faced by comebacker students.

Various factors contribute to students dropping out of college, including work commitments, caregiving responsibilities, and institutional barriers such as loss of financial aid or inflexible schedules. These challenges make it difficult for students to balance their academic pursuits with other priorities.

The report advocates for a shift in how comebacker students are perceived and treated by colleges. It urges colleges to offer more flexibility in class schedules, encourage students to return, and provide additional support to those who struggle academically. Buffy Tanner, director of innovation and special projects at Shasta College, emphasizes that comebacker students bring valuable skills and experiences to the college environment.

Strategies for Supporting Comebacker Students

Many comebacker students may discontinue their studies after being placed on academic probation, a term that carries negative connotations. The report recommends reframing the language used to describe academic standing to avoid stigmatizing students and discouraging them from continuing their education.

Furthermore, restructuring academic calendars to offer shorter, more frequent classes can facilitate greater student participation and accommodate the diverse needs of students. This approach benefits not only comebacker students but also the broader student population by promoting flexibility and accessibility in education.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment at California's community colleges has not fully rebounded. Jez emphasizes the importance of supporting comebacker students, particularly as the state aims to address pressing issues such as climate change and housing.

In conclusion, the study calls for concerted efforts from colleges to remove barriers and create a more supportive environment for comebacker students. By empowering these individuals to access and complete their college degrees, California can ensure a more equitable and prosperous future for all.

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