Inside an ambitious plan to reenroll California’s stopped-out students

Around 4 million working-age Californians have completed some college credits but left before they could earn a degree, according to a 2018 report from California Competes, a higher education and workforce research nonprofit. A new effort aims to bring them back. 

A group of higher education organizations announced this week they are joining forces to help up to 30 colleges reenroll thousands of residents in the state, with a focus on institutions the coronavirus pandemic hit hardest. The coalition includes California Competes, ProjectAttain!, InsideTrack and the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Each partner is taking on a specific role. ProjectAttain!, a collective of colleges working to increase educational attainment in the Sacramento area, is providing a model for the initiative that focuses on directing students to institutions aligned with their needs. 

Meanwhile, the Institute for Higher Education Policy is pinpointing which students have accumulated considerable college credit but are shy of completing a degree. InsideTrack will provide outreach and coaching to students to help them craft plans to return to college. And California Competes will document the lessons learned from the initiative to highlight important policy implications. 

ECMC Foundation and Strada Education Network are funding the initiative. 

To learn more about the initiative, we spoke with Kai Drekmeier, co-founder and chief development officer at InsideTrack.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Kai Drekmeier

Permission granted by Kai Drekmeier


HIGHER ED DIVE: Why is now the right time to start this initiative? 

KAI DREKMEIER: California is better funded than many states, yet it still struggles with some of these enrollment issues that are really hitting the whole country. Currently, California community college enrollment is at a 30-year low. There are 4 million Californians aged 25 to 64 who have a high school diploma and some college credit but never completed an associate or bachelor’s degree. 

Just like everywhere, Californians are going to need more skills — and often more degrees and credentials — to qualify for some of the high-skill roles that we’re seeing in the workforce.

How will the initiative determine which students to contact? 

We are going to prioritize students who have earned enough credit that they’re within a year of completing. That may vary a little by institution. 

Secondarily, we’re going to look at students who have stopped out in just the last two years. Some of the work we’ve done in North Carolina has shown that it’s much harder to reach students who have been out for quite awhile, and you have a tougher time engaging them. 

We are absolutely going to support as many learners as we possibly can. We just have to prioritize those with the best chance of coming back.

How were the 30 participating colleges selected? 

For the first year, we are going to primarily focus on the Inland Empire — the area east of Los Angeles, which has some of the lowest college attainment rates in the state — and then also the capital Sacramento region, where ProjectAttain! has been active for more than a year. 

The reason we are going to be adding institutions over a three-year period is that we recognize all colleges are on a spectrum of institutional readiness. Some of those that would like to participate or we would like to get involved are going to struggle with staff bandwidth just to put this together and make it happen. The implementation process could be more than a year for some institutions. Others we believe are going to be ready to go early in 2023. 

What would be an example of a college that is ready? 

They have already done a good bit of data analysis and have identified large lists of students who have stopped out that they would like to bring back. They also have overall institutional leadership support for such a project and have folks assigned who can manage this initiative. 

The reality for many institutions is that the pandemic has driven staff off campus and, in some cases, there have been staff reductions. Having folks with the bandwidth to manage and support an initiative like this and be a liaison, it’s not always easy. Additionally, having data support to identify the students that we want to prioritize, it can be a challenge in some institutions.

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