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A Message from the Graduate! Network Team 

The Graduate! Network team is horrified by the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, January 6th. We condemn the actions of the insurrectionists and denounce their anti-democratic, white supremacist ideologies. We are profoundly saddened that we live in a country where any adult can be so manipulated and blinded by prejudice as to believe, against all reason, that a free and fair election was somehow stolen.  We further find it mind-boggling that anyone believes that an appropriate form of protest - regardless of who suggests it - is to storm the seat of our democracy.  

On January 18 we will come together for our annual MLK Day of Service, the only federal holiday that encourages all of us to volunteer to improve our communities.  The following day the National Day of Racial Healing, an opportunity for people, organizations, and communities to call for racial healing, bring people together in their shared humanity and take action together to create a more just and equitable world.  In that spirit, we reflected on the actions that give us hope. 

We are heartened that so many of our nation's elected officials unified to ensure democracy reigned. We are also encouraged by the outraged comparisons so many with influence have drawn between the lack of force these marauders were met with as compared to the ways in which peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors were treated just this past summer. We are inspired by the record number of Georgians who cast their vote in the recent special election; voting being our most fundamental right.  We are grateful for all our public figures and elected officials who have stood up for democracy.

We continue to hope that a meaningful dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion leading to real and lasting change is our new normal. 

This past weekend, our dear friend Cedric Deadmon sent us a powerful message about these events.  His email concluded with this inspiring statement:

My confidence is not in quick change, but in the deliberate and sustained work of authenticity, collaboration, and equity for all. No matter what happens around us, we must keep fighting for democracy, building people power, reimagining oppressive systems, and never giving up hope. As quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m honored to persist on this journey with you.  
Achieving full equity for all people means everyone, regardless of background or any other factor, has access and a voice that is heard. Our part is to ensure anyone who aspires to earn a degree has a fair shot to do so.  We are privileged to have the opportunity to do this work, and grateful to be a part of the growing Graduate! family devoting themselves to this mission.

The Comeback Story: The Journey Continues

Working on the frontlines for more than 15 years with adults who have earned some college but no degree, The Graduate! Network has always sought to share our understanding of this unique student population with the broader field of practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers who serve them. Most recently, we released The Comeback Story, a comprehensive report completed with New America that examines how adults successfully returned to school and completed their degrees, mitigating challenges created by past postsecondary attempts and navigating the complexity of their lives. Operating from the strong belief that everyone should have an equitable chance to achieve the education and career they desire, the Network honors these individuals by designating them as Comebackers.

Some 36 million adults had earned some college but no degree as of 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a number that has surely swelled in the past year as many students have been knocked off track due to widespread closures, job losses, and health impacts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. NSC’s most recent research found that completion rates have plateaued in the past year, “a slowing of progress driven by traditional-age students and community college starters having lost ground.” Looking at our own program data on adults who work with Network advisors to return to school, we are seeing fewer Comebackers re-enroll in school than we had expected based on enrollment rates in 2019. Of the Comebackers who had re-enrolled and were attending before the pandemic hit, more have since withdrawn than we had expected based on stop-out rates in 2019, putting their studies on hold once again. 

These troubling signs of education disruption make understanding the Comebacker experience all the more important if we are to get them back on track. With funding support from Ascendium Education Group*, we continue to mine our program data for insights into Comebackers’ interests and goals and their actions and behaviors along their journey.  These insights represent the experience of the Comebacker population we work with, which is largely Black and Latinx, low income, and female. (See a description below of our study set and methodology.)

In this spirit, we offer three new insights that speak to the question: What is going on? Our next step is to ask: Why are things happening this way? We will be seeking the answers to this and other  “why” questions through qualitative research with Comebackers themselves and with our higher education partners that are supporting them through to graduation. A synthesis of our findings will be released in a comprehensive report in spring 2021.

  1. Understanding Comebacker motivations: Comebackers often return to school for deeply personal reasons—they see earning their degree as reaching a long-held goal or as something that gives them tremendous satisfaction. Increasingly, they cite wanting to be a role model for family as the top reason. The older Comebackers are when contemplating going back to school, however, the more likely they are to cite economic reasons for wanting to return, such as increasing their earning potential or meeting requirements of an employer or for a specific job. Of course, Comebackers’ motivations for returning to school are multi-faceted, and with the fallout from the pandemic we are likely to see a host of new factors emerging, such as wanting to start a new career. The growing pressures and priorities as one gets older, however, are clearly reflected in our demographic data. On average, Comebackers engage with the Network in their early 30s, after which re-enrollment increases and peaks around age 39; graduation increases and peaks around age 46.

In our qualitative research, we will be asking: Why is this age period of Comebackers’ mid-30s into their 40s so ripe for activity and advancement? Upon re-enrolling, did Comebackers have a clearer vision of what they wanted to get out of college the second time around? What was different for the Comebacker personally and what were the circumstances surrounding their decision making? For higher education institutions, what policies and practices do they have in place to address the needs of adult students who are older than traditional students?

  1. Supporting Comebacker adjustments: Upon re-enrolling, it is not unusual for Comebackers to change their field of study or their school, and they sometimes change both. In our analysis, we see that this leads to variations in completion rates: Comebackers who stayed with their same school graduated at higher rates even if they changed their field of study, while Comebackers who changed their school, regardless of whether or not they changed their field of study, seemed to graduate at lower rates. Clearly, given these data, the decision to change schools is an important consideration for Comebackers.

In our qualitative research, we will be asking: Why did Comebackers change their schools? What was it about their original school that made them want to change, and what was it about their newly chosen school that attracted them? What was the experience of  switching to a new school like (transferring credits, going through the prior learning assessment process, etc.)? What were the benefits of switching schools and what were the drawbacks? For higher education partners, what policies and practices do they have in place for supporting transfer students, especially those for whom significant time has passed since they last attended?

  1. Identifying promising degree pathways for Comebackers: When considering going back to school, Comebackers often start off with a particular credential in mind, presumably the one they were working on initially. And in fact, in our analysis we saw that most Comebackers earned the credential they said they wanted to. But sometimes they ended up earning a different one, and often this credential was a step below what they initially had in mind. For example, more than a third of Comebackers said they wanted to complete a four-year degree, but earned a two-year degree instead. This was true for Comebackers who wanted to earn a two-year degree as well: close to one-fifth earned an undergraduate certificate instead, though it should be noted that one in 10 earned a four-year degree instead of the two-year degree they had originally considered. The data do not tell us if this is the end point of a Comebacker’s journey or if it is the first stop along the way toward a longer-term goal such as a four-year degree. But we do know, in our day-to-day contact with Comebackers, that many are rationally putting a “stake in the ground” by earning the credential that they can get to quickest, such as when they are awarded an associate’s degree through a reverse transfer process or an undergraduate degree with stackable credits. 

In our qualitative research, we will be asking: Why did Comebackers choose to earn a different credential than the one they originally intended to earn? How did they come to this decision? Did anyone inside or outside their school help them think through the options? Was there something that stopped them from earning the degree they had originally intended to earn? Do they intend to further their studies? For higher education partners, what policies and practices do they have in place for helping Comebackers think through their degree options? How do their programs help Comebackers earn credentials in a reasonable amount of time and at reasonable cost?

About the study set and methodology: Our study set is unique in the postsecondary attainment ecosystem in that it provides a longitudinal view of student progress across institutions. For this data analysis, our study set consisted of 8,401 adults who had some degree of contact with a Graduate! Network program and were in the “some college, no degree” category, meaning they had completed at a minimum one term of coursework but were not attending when they contacted the program. Demographically, they break down in the following way: 69 percent Black, Latinx, Asian, or another race or ethnicity that is not white; 78 percent low income (i.e., family annual income less than $42,000); and, 64 percent female. These student-level administrative data records were augmented by enrollment and graduation records obtained from the NSC in October 2020. Data were analyzed using standard descriptive statistics and cross tabulations.

*Ascendium Education Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium’s work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all. For more information, visit

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