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Insight Paper

Re-enrolling America’s College Stopouts

“I was 26 at the time when I went back
to school then. It was just uncomfortable…
I couldn’t relate to anybody.

This student described one of the challenges she faced as she tried to re-enroll in college years after she had left. She knew she needed a degree to fulfill her professional and personal goals and had never expected to wait so long to finish, but when she returned to campus, she hit barrier after barrier and nearly gave up.

As millions of former students face the frustration of a goal unachieved, colleges across the country are beginning to ask, “Is there more we can do to meet the needs of students who return after stopping out?”

Investments in student success

In recent years, colleges have made significant investments in student success. Fortunately, their investments are starting to pay off. The percentage of students who earn a degree within 150% of their expected completion time has increased at both universities and community colleges (source: NCES).

However, this overview of student success overlooks concerning data. While more people are entering college and student success rates are on the rise, far too many students fail to earn the degrees they seek. In fact, between 2013 and 2018 the quantity of individual students who left college before graduating rose from 29 million to 36 million students—an increase of 22% (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center). These students put their faith in the promise of higher education without reaping the benefits afforded to graduates.

What’s the impact of no degree?

The effect of not having a degree becomes especially poignant during times of economic distress. The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread unemployment, and individuals without a bachelor’s degree were affected most.

Unemployment rates among individuals with a degree were about 2.5 times higher in May 2020 than they were in May 2019. Meanwhile unemployment rates among those with some college but no bachelor’s degree were 3.7 times higher than a year before, and unemployment among those whose highest level of education was a high school diploma was 3.25 times higher in May 2020 compared to the previous year.

During previous economic downturns, higher education has had an insulating effect on college graduates. What’s more, college has provided refuge and opportunity to individuals faced with joblessness in previous recessions. Higher education offers upskilling to more secure professional opportunities and can be an opportunity to complete a credential that had been started in the past.

To help colleges reach these former students, known as “stopouts,” EAB has researched the most effective strategies for finding, re-recruiting, and supporting students who left their institutions without earning a degree.

COVID-19 unemployment rates*


Higher for individuals with a degree


Higher for individuals with some college, but no bachelor’s degree


Higher for individuals with only a high school diploma

*Compared to unemployment rates in 2019

Financial spotlight

One in five Americans has some college but no degree. Of those, 17% have loans in default. Loan default can have cascading consequences on students who placed their faith in the promise of higher education, even when they knew it could be a risky investment.

First, students with loans in default cannot receive future aid until they have made steady payments on their loans for an extended period of time.

While this may seem like a relatively small penalty, it can force students whose circumstances have stabilized since default to delay their academic pursuits, holding them back from achieving their goals.

Another obstacle for stopouts who have defaulted on their loans is
that most colleges will not release transcripts until the debt has been reconciled. Thus, even if students can continue coursework through avenues such as employer-paid tuition benefits, they cannot access previously completed coursework. Such practices can force students who have stopped out to become dropouts because on-ramps into the classroom are difficult to access.

In addition, students who have loans in default are in jeopardy of having federal funds withheld.

For example, low-income students who may have been counting on their federal tax refunds for important purchases such as car repairs or medical bills can find themselves without the money they need for these essentials. In addition, their credit reports could be damaged, and their wages could be garnished in order to cover their federal loan debts. These problems are further compounded due to loan acceleration, whereby the entire loan balance and interest becomes due immediately upon default.

While default can have devastating effects on stopped-out students’ finances, students may also face unexpected roadblocks if they attempt to return to college while their loans are in default.

Ready to begin?

Understand the stopout challenge with EAB research findings, institution-specific examples, and in-depth reviews of the various types of stop-outs.


Take action to find your stopouts and enable re-enrollment. You can also review additional institutional examples to learn how other similar schools have addressed stopouts.