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Original Article:
Bringing “Dropouts” Back to College (spring 2004)


Back to College
July 2007

THE GRADUATION PROJECT at the University of New Mexico has been in operation for ten years now. Although David Stuart, who founded the project, is no longer there, his “brainchild” is still going strong. Vanessa Shields, the project coordinator, said that since Stuart retired, “new staff have to be constantly reminded to keep the word out there about the project, so students know that we’re there for them.”

Shields, who has been with the project since 2003, said that 69 percent of returning students go on to complete a bachelor’s degree, and that their number will have grown from 1,068, at the time of National CrossTalk’s original article in 2004, to more than 1,500 this year. “Each semester we have between 180 and 260 currently enrolled students,” Shields said.

The Tuition Assistance Program, for returning students who meet specific academic standards, has also expanded. “We increased the amounts because tuition has gone up significantly,” Shields explained. “We give 50 percent of tuition, to a maximum of $500 per semester, up to a total benefit to the student of $2,000.” And there are plans to increase those contributions further.

When Stuart began the project in 1996, he could not find any examples in the country of existing programs of the type he envisioned. But the Graduation Project now has a few imitators, including programs at California State University, Long Beach, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, according to Shields.

Three years ago we reported that some 300 students had been helped by the project to receive their degrees without even taking any additional courses. With the right guidance, they were able to graduate with the credits they had already earned. Since then, more than 80 additional students have fallen into that category.

Attempts to create an “early warning” system that could preemptively identify students who are at risk of dropping out have not yielded useful results. “It’s still in the works,” Shields said. “Right now there isn’t a pattern that we can identify.” And there are few resources to commit to such research. The Graduation Project has a minimal staff that includes one full-time person, a work-study intern, and a woman who came to work there quarter-time after she retired from the registrar’s office.

“When this program started, they thought it would fizzle out, but it didn’t,” Shields said. “They thought that we would catch up to the demand, but it is steady business, good and bad. This project shows that there are some kinks, where the university is losing students. But those students want to come back.”

—Todd Sallo

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