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Robin Golden drifted through high school without making much of an effort. After graduating in the spring of 1981, she planned to forgo college and head straight to the job market. 

When her father, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, signed her up for classes there that fall, she was furious. She didn’t want to go, and when she dropped out after two years, her GPA was 1.8.

But after decades of feeling underpaid and undervalued in various jobs, Golden realized that maybe her father was right – maybe she needed to earn a college degree.

Robin Golden graduated from Morgan State University last week, 41 years after she first enrolled. She earned an associate degree online, then enrolled in Morgan State’s applied liberal studies program and completed her bachelor’s degree while working full time.  Credit: Image provided by Robin Golden

Starting in 2018, while working full time, Golden began taking classes online – first at a community college in Ohio, then at Morgan State – with a resolve she didn’t have at 18. She earned a 3.8 GPA while getting her associate degree at the community college, and she made the dean’s list at Morgan State. 

On Saturday, Golden, 59, graduated from Morgan State with a bachelor’s degree in applied liberal studies with a concentration in sociology – 41 years after she first enrolled there as a freshman. 

Morgan State’s applied liberal studies major targets adult students who have taken some college courses but dropped out before finishing. Begun five years ago, it has spurred the development of the College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies, which launched this spring. It will offer many of the same things that helped adult students succeed after time away, but will now operate as an independent sector of the college, open to students from all over the country at in-state tuition prices.

Many programs across the country are targeting the 39 million people who have taken some college classes but never finished. At Morgan State, those returning might have earned an associate degree before entering the workforce; taken some classes before hitting a family, health or financial roadblock; or, like Golden, needed to take time away before they could see the value in college and commit to seeing their degree through. 

Related: For adults returning to college, ‘free’ tuition isn’t enough

These students aren’t deemed unsuccessful because they didn’t earn a bachelor’s degree the first time around, said Nicholas Vaught, the interim assistant dean for academics and student success in the College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies. “They’re successful because they’ve already earned academic credit. That’s already putting them ahead. And so, we just want to provide the flexibility and the support to help them get over the finish line.”

Instead of retrofitting the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program, Vaught said that Morgan State, which is a historically Black university, designed its program specifically for adults, who are often working full time and managing family responsibilities while going to school. The program gives credit for work experience, offers flexible online classes and offers in-state tuition prices to every student, regardless of whether they live in Maryland, to help make the bachelor’s degree more financially accessible, Vaught said.

“It’s not enough to have low tuition. It’s not enough to have courses online. There’s also a support mechanism that a lot of adult learners need.”

Nicholas Vaught, interim assistant dean for academics and student success in the College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies, Morgan State University

And every student is paired with an advisor to work closely with. Instead of merely checking in once per semester to assist with scheduling, advisors also help students access nonacademic resources and offer moral support.

“It’s not enough to have low tuition. It’s not enough to have courses online. There’s also a support mechanism that a lot of adult learners need,” Vaught said. “Sometimes as an adult learner, you just need to get a kind email. Especially when you are juggling so many things.” 

Vaught said the college uses radio ads and other local advertising to try to reach students who started at Morgan State but then got deterred. Now that the College of Interdisciplinary and Continuing Studies is open to students from across the country, the recruitment efforts are likely to change. 

Related: PROOF POINTS: Lessons from college dropouts who came back

Morgan State also works with a company called ReUp, which deploys coaches to work one-on-one with students finding their way back to college. In addition to helping them navigate bureaucratic systems like accessing financial aid or transferring credits, which may be unfamiliar after time away, coaches help students determine what resources they will need to be successful when they return to school, and who they have to support them when they are in stressful situations. 

Alyse Spencer, a coach at ReUp, tells her students, “I’m here until you graduate, or you tell me to go away. But otherwise, I’m here to support you.”

“I like to try and cut down on the runaround that they would have to do typically, too, because they are busy,” she added. “They have lives, they have full-time jobs. And if I can help to make that process a little bit simpler so they’re more likely to be able to follow through and achieve their goals, then I’m all for it.” 

John Reyes, who manages coaches at ReUp, said that, along with helping students navigate financial aid and transfer credit systems, he also encourages them to “dig a little deeper under the surface” and evaluate their goals for college.

Reyes said it’s important that he is “really holding that space for them to think, ‘what returning to school would look like less from an academic standpoint and more from that life integration, life balance, personal aspect?’ 

Related: Colleges’ new solution to enrollment declines: Stopping dropouts 

For Golden, the built-in support at Morgan State was helpful as she tried to cobble together the collection of credits from different schools and different decades, figure out how to meet all the requirements in the shortest time, and continue working at her regular, full-time job. 

Now, she’s hoping to cash in her new Applied Liberal Studies degree for a promotion where she works, in the department of general services of a nearby county government. 

But it’s not just about the promotion, she said. It’s in honor of her father, who first enrolled her at Morgan State when he was a professor there in 1981, and has since passed away, and for her mother, also a former Morgan State professor, who at 84 just received a copy of Golden’s dean’s list certificate in the mail. 

And it’s for her three children, all of whom have earned bachelor’s degrees from universities in Maryland.  

“I was really candid with my kids about me dropping out. I told them all, ‘Don’t do that. Because you could be stuck in a life of low paying jobs, where you don’t feel valued.’ And that was me,” Golden said. 

And it’s also about personal satisfaction, she said, “I put the work in and, you know, I kind of feel like a little bit of ‘maybe I should pinch myself.’ ”

This story about college dropouts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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