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none and soon realized he would be forced to invent the
program piece by piece.
The task was daunting. Howwould the university locate
former students, some of whomhad been gone for five years
or more? What enticements would be effective in luring them
back? And which dropouts would be recruited?
The last question was answered first. Stuart and senior
programmanager Danita Gomez decided they would seek
only those dropouts who had earned 98 credit hours (124 are
needed for graduation) and maintained a grade point average
of 2.0 or better. The target group, in other words, would be
composed of former students who were reasonably close to
graduation and had left in good academic standing.
“Even with these cutoffs, we identified about 3,000 students
that fit the model,” said Stuart. “We were surprised to see the
group had an average GPA of 2.8, so clearly the students were
not leaving for academic reasons.”
The trick of locating long-gone students turned out to
be simpler than expected. The university contracted with
TransUnion Inc., a credit reporting company, to run their
student names through the company’s database. Because of
the potential credit impact of such searches, the university
required the company to construct a firewall that would
separate the student search operations from its normal activity.
The approach worked. Soon the university had addresses
and phone numbers for virtually all of its targeted walk-aways
at a cost of $1.90 each.
Then came the delicate business of approaching the former
students. The university decided the first communication
would be made via letter. But what should the letter say?
Stuart decided to offer a re-entry that would be as hassle-
free and low-cost as possible. The strategy was based on his
interpretation of university surveys of departing students
taken in the mid-’90s. Those surveys showed some surprising
results. Many students walked away because they felt defeated
by the university bureaucracy and its complex, often shifting
graduation requirements.
Many of these respondents fell into the “non-traditional”
category, meaning they worked full-time, were married or
had children, and usually lived off-campus. Onmany state
university campuses such students are now the norm rather
than the exception. It was these students, Stuart found, who
were being defeated by the university bureaucracy.
Incredibly, said Stuart, many reported they often could not
identify which courses they needed to graduate. And, even if
the courses could be identified, the students frequently could
not get into those classes because they were oversubscribed.
“They were befuddled, rudderless,” Stuart said. “They were
saying, ‘I don’t knowwhat it takes to get out of here and I’m
tired of trying.’ And maybe they’d been offered a raise at their
job and decided, ‘That’s what I’m doing, I’m outta here.’”
Stuart added, “I’m a UNM supporter, not a UNM slammer.
But, boy, are we opaque. And there are a lot of other state
universities out there, judging from their graduation rates of
36 percent to 42 percent, that have the same problemwe do.”
So Stuart sat down to write his letter, in the belief that he
had a fair understanding of the problems of the walk-away
students. They needed to see a simple, direct path to a degree,
and they needed a little help in getting there. He decided to
offer them just that.
“We at the University of NewMexico care about the
academic success of our students,” the letter began. “If you are
still interested in pursuing that dream, we would like to help.”
The letter then detailed the enticements: a shortened re-
admit application with no fee; a “degree summary” that would
state exactly which courses were needed for graduation;
priority enrollment in classes; and personal assistance when
problems arose.
Then came the financial kicker. If the returning student
had an old GPA of at least 2.5, or achieved it after returning,
they would be eligible
for a special Tuition
Assistance Program
whereby the university
would pay half their
tuition per year, up to
$800, over a two-year
period.
The letter touched the
right buttons, and in the
weeks following, about
800 inquiries poured
into the project office.
Eventually 180 of those
enrolled as returned students.
The project did not attempt to create a “class” of returnees.
Rather, the strategy was to help each student individually
and speed them toward a degree as fast as possible. One of
the returnees was Linda Marmon, who now describes her
dropout story as “classical.”
Marmon had left the university after getting married,
with only 24 credit hours remaining for a degree. Financial
problems had dictated the departure but she also felt stymied
at the university. “Those 24 more hours had begun to seem
huge,” she said. “You know, this is a big university and it can
be overwhelming. There is an intimidating quality about it.
At the University
of New Mexico and
many other public
universities, more
than half of each
freshman class will
fail to graduate.
Associate Provost David Stuart has run the Graduation Project at the University of
New Mexico since it began in 1996.