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In 2020, there were 39 million or one out of every five American adults under 65 who had dropped out of college and never finished their degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images

Ron Floyd dropped out of New Jersey’s Seton Hall University after his junior year more than 20 years ago. His father, the family’s primary breadwinner, had just been laid off from work. Floyd said he lost interest in his studies, was doing poorly in his classes and didn’t want to burden the family with tuition bills. He returned home to East Windsor, Connecticut, to get a job.

Like many dropouts, Floyd always intended to finish his college education. His father was a college-educated aerospace engineer. But as the years went by, his student debt prevented him from even re-applying to college to resume his studies. Yet through good fortune, hard work and savings, Floyd was able to get back.

Floyd’s obstacles and how he overcame them matter because in 2020, there were a staggering 39 million American adults who had dropped out of college and never finished their degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit organization that collects and analyzes data from colleges and universities. That’s one out of every five adults under 65. The number of college dropouts swelled during the tight labor market; an additional 2 million people joined their ranks from only a year and a half earlier in 2018.

The failed attempt at college has left many in debt with marred credit histories and poor long-term employment prospects. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to land in this boat: 43 percent of the nation’s college dropouts are Black and Hispanic Americans, far greater than their 34 percent share of the undergraduate population. Floyd, who is Black, was one of these statistics until he finally earned his bachelor’s degree in August 2020.

Colleges and philanthropies are interested in luring this population back – not only to improve the lives of these Americans and raise the skills of the U.S. labor force, but also to fill empty seats at colleges that have been losing students.

It’s not easy for many who return. Almost a million of these former students re-enroll every year but before the year is up, half of them drop out again, National Student Clearinghouse figures show. A 2021 survey by the research firm Higher Ed Insight of more than a 1,000 returning students who were successful revealed a wide variety of things that helped them stick with their studies and complete their degrees. Almost a quarter received employer tuition subsidies. Most took out student loans. Many expressed a strong internal drive to achieve this personal goal and finish what they had started. (The Lumina Foundation funded both the National Student Clearinghouse and the Higher Ed Insight reports. The Lumina Foundation is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Each person’s experience and problems differ and so do the solutions. Some felt online classes were very important but others didn’t. I wanted to talk with students who participated in the survey to hear their stories, but Higher Ed Insight had promised not to reveal the names of the colleges they attended. Instead, the research firm introduced me to Floyd, who was not part of the survey study, but whose story echoes that of many survey respondents.

As with many dropouts, Floyd had unpaid student debt to resolve. During his junior year at Seton Hall, Floyd believed his tuition had been covered by a federal PLUS loan that his parents had taken out. But after the year was over, Seton Hall noticed that it never received the $25,000 from the federal government and billed Floyd for it directly. Floyd said he had never been notified of the loan problem while he was living on campus and he was unable to fix a clerical error retroactively. Initially Floyd tried to pay Seton Hall $500 a month, but he was unable to keep up with payments on low-paid temp jobs without a college degree.

Floyd thought about going back to school but he said Seton Hall wouldn’t release his transcript until he paid back the debt. That prevented him from applying to another college with credits he had already earned. He would also have trouble taking out future student loans without resolving this debt first.

Instead, Floyd joined the Wethersfield, Connecticut, police, graduating number one in his class at the police academy. He served for 13 years, earning two medals of valor and was named 2010 officer of the year.

Knee injuries and surgeries forced Floyd to leave daily police work and go on long-term disability. “Now that I was looking at having to get into a new line of work, a new career, I knew that a degree was critical,” said Floyd. “I felt kind of defeated. After all that time, I wasn’t sure that it was ever going to happen.”

Serendipity helped. Floyd was introduced to Patricia Steele, the founder of Higher Ed Insight, through a mutual friend in the Wethersfield police department. Steele made an initial call to the Seton Hall bursar to kickstart negotiations. Seton Hall agreed to write off half the debt and Floyd paid the remainder. He was fortunate to have a retirement account from his years on the police force to dip into. “There were no loans available to cover an old balance from 17, 18 years ago,” said Floyd. “I looked. If I hadn’t had the retirement money, I’d still be paying that debt off.”

A spokesperson for Seton Hall University said the university’s goal is to be “supportive” and work with students who are navigating challenging times.

After the settlement, Seton Hall released his transcript. Then, both the University of Connecticut and the University of Hartford rejected him. Floyd suspects that’s because he had low grades at Seton Hall. “I thought that my subsequent life experience and high accomplishments would help,” said Floyd. “Unfortunately, it didn’t seem that factored into the equation.”

Charter Oak State College, an online college run by the state of Connecticut for adult learners, accepted him in 2018. The college not only took all his credits from Seton Hall, it also awarded him bonus credits for his studies at the police academy and work experience on the police force. With his debt behind him, Floyd took out $10,000 in fresh federal loans to pay the in-state public tuition. A Charter Oak adviser plotted out several options for degree completion. Floyd decided against a double major, which would have taken too long, but he wanted to retake some classes to boost his GPA.

Floyd took two accelerated classes at a time, each lasting six to eight weeks. His adviser pro-actively emailed him every term, planning his next schedule ahead. “It was super efficient,” Floyd said. Learning online at home while on disability leave was manageable and he was doing well.

“I had a different level of maturity, and better study habits than I had when I first attended school,” said Floyd. “I knew how to budget my time.”

In March of 2020, Floyd landed a job. Collins Aerospace, an aviation firm in the defense industry, hired him as a contract administrator in their propeller department. Floyd was still a few credits short of his degree but he powered through the final months.

“Working as a single dad with two kids and completing college was daunting,” he said. Both his sister and his parents lived nearby and helped take care of his kids, now 12 and 13.

In August 2020, Floyd completed his bachelor’s degree in the college’s honors program with a 3.92 GPA – almost a perfect straight A. He was 40 years old. In June 2021, Collins Aerospace – which had then become a unit of defense giant Raytheon Technologies Corp. – hired him as a full-time employee. “I’m sure that would not have been on the table had I not completed my degree,” said Floyd.

As fate would have it, Floyd is now working for the successor to the company that laid off his father and prompted him to drop out of college back in 2001. “I’m actually working at the same company,” he said. “It’s kind of funny.” His father lived to see him graduate before passing away at the end of 2021.

Many elements of Floyd’s story are similar to what other respondents on the Higher Ed Insight survey said. He had an inner drive to finish his degree, a supportive family who helped with childcare, a good college adviser who laid out an efficient schedule of courses that fit in with the life of a single father, a college that gave him credit for work experience, access to federal student loans and a clear sense of how a college degree could help him professionally. But there are also idiosyncratic particulars: meeting a higher ed expert who could advocate with a university administrator on his behalf and the misfortune of a disability that provided Floyd extended time off to study.

Floyd is now thinking about returning to school again and taking advantage of his employer’s tuition assistance to pursue an executive MBA in finance.

“It was really rewarding to be able to show my kids never to give up,” said Floyd. “You can still achieve even if things don’t go the way you planned. But the message I have for them is do it while you’re young.”

This story about returning to college was written by Jill Barshay and 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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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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