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109
By Robert A. Jones
Albuquerque, NewMexico
T
he story of Arellana Cordero is all too
common here: An honors student in high school, Ms.
Cordero entered the University of NewMexico in 1993
with high expectations of becoming a college graduate. Five
years later, with only 15 credits remaining to receive her
baccalaureate degree, she abandoned her goal and dropped
out.
Cordero’s problemwas not low grades or a lack of money.
Rather, she left because, after five years, her college career had
gone astray. She lived at home, felt disconnected from the
university and had begun to doubt she would ever receive a
degree, however close it might be. So when outside pressures
of a job and marriage began to tug at her life, she walked away
from college.
At the University of NewMexico and many other public
universities, more than half of each freshman class will fail to
graduate. Traditionally, these departures have been attributed
to academic failure or personal problems, and dropouts have
been regarded as the unfortunate losers in the Darwinian
struggle for a higher education.
But recent surveys here and elsewhere suggest that a
surprisingly large percentage of dropouts more closely
resemble Cordero. These students—especially those who
leave in their junior or senior years—maintain at least decent
grades and lead otherwise productive lives while in college.
They depart because something more subtle goes wrong: They
get lost on the path to a degree, can’t reconcile competing
pressures from jobs
and families, and
eventually surrender
to the accumulated
difficulties. The
unraveling takes
place slowly, ending
not with a bang but a
whimper.
Across the nation,
little is done to rescue
these students once
they’ve left college.
But an innovative
project here at UNM is proving that many such dropouts can
be enticed into returning for a second shot at a degree. And
these students, once returned, are graduating at startling rates.
The Graduation Project, as it is called, is the brainchild of
Associate Provost David E. Stuart. Founded in 1996 with a tiny
budget and tinier staff, the programhas systematically tracked
down nearly 2,000 departed students and lured themback to
campus. Thus far, fully 68 percent of the returnees are earning
Spring 2004
Bringing “Dropouts” Back to College
The University of New Mexico’s Graduation Project is the first of its kind among the nation’s public universities
their bachelor’s degrees,
and the program’s
graduate total has hit
1,068. In addition, 44 of
the participants have gone
on to graduate school or
have earned a graduate
degree.
Stuart, a burly 37-year
veteran of the university
who is also a professor
of anthropology, says
the high graduation
rates prove that many of
the myths about college
dropouts are simply false.
“We find that many of
these people are good
students andmotivated,”
he said. “They want that
degree, and they will get it
if given a decent chance.”
Because of the myths,
Stuart says many of his
colleagues were dubious
when he first proposed
the program eight years
ago. “I’m sure the administration was humoring me when
they said OK,” he explained. “They were thinking, ‘Here’s Dave
Stuart being himself again, so we’ll play along. The program
won’t be successful, and we’ll let Dave find that out for himself.’”
That skepticismhas long since evaporated. The university’s
regents recently asked Stuart to expand his efforts, applying
the techniques of the Graduation Project to current students
who are in danger of dropping out. And university President
Louis Caldera says that the Graduation Project’s practice of
forging personal relationships with its student participants, a
key feature of the program, is “something that we need to clone
in other areas.”
Caldera, who took over as president only last August,
added, “I inherited the Graduation Project and can’t take credit
for it. But I can cheer themon. The program is so important
because it helps us meet our mission, which is to educate
young people and encourage them to think of their lives in the
long-term and about the difference that a college degree can
make.”
The Graduation Project has attracted attention not only
because of its success but because it appears to be the first of
its kind among the nation’s public universities. In fact, when
Stuart first began organizing the project in 1996 he searched
for similar programs that could be used as models. He found
The University of New Mexico’s dropout rescue
program enabled Linda Marmon to return to campus
and earn a bachelor’s degree.
An innovative project
at the University of
New Mexico is proving
that many dropouts
can be enticed into
returning for a second
shot at a degree.
Photos by Jake Schoellkopf, Black Star, for CrossTalk