Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home
Insight Paper

Find and re-recruit stopouts

Step 1 | Find your stopouts

College leaders universally agree that finding former students presents the greatest challenge to their attempts to serve stopouts.

Our first recommendation is to establish a procedure for interviewing or surveying students who don’t return in a subsequent term.

Communicating with students who have decided not to return to your college provides great insight about what is causing their departure, and these insights can effectively inform future student support resources. It can also serve as an opportunity to ask students for updated contact information and a point in the future when they would like to be contacted about re-enrolling.

Staff can use this engagement to dispel preconceived notions that students may have in regard to their ability to return and consequences of a lapse in enrollment. This approach can reduce the stigma of stopping out for students.

Having the advantage of current contact information for stopped-out students will make it much easier to connect with them. We anticipated that our research would lead to a definitive recommendation on the most effective strategies for outreach.

However, across the numerous research interviews we conducted, we found many examples of one college reporting great success with a method that had failed at another college. To determine which approach works best for your stopped-out students, test formats and track responses to determine which style works best.

Strategies for finding the students who left


  • Engaging
  • Can be saved

Printed outreach


  • Costly
  • Addresses change

  • Low-cost
  • May include read-receipt

Social media

  • Response rates are low
  • Time-consuming to identify individuals

  • Easy to A/B test and track
  • Expected communication method from college


  • Email addresses change
  • May get lost in spam

  • Personal contact
  • Ability to provide detail


  • People don’t often answer their phones
  • Many times phone numbers change

  • No additional staff resources
  • Can discontinue if ineffective

External vendor

  • Expensive
  • Privacy concerns

Our second recommendation is to use images and language that reflect the probable life situations of stopouts receiving outreach.

Feature images of older students or graduates, and highlight the tools your college has in place to help students balance their professional responsibilities along with academics. While each outreach approach has advantages and disadvantages, one point was repeated across our research calls: students will keep outreach and reply when they are ready to return.

Therefore, our third recommendation is to use staff contact information that will outlast staff transitions which may occur before students reply to the outreach they received.

College administrators told us that whether they sent a voice-mail message, a printed letter through the mail, or an email, they would receive responses from stopouts months later. This suggests that college contact information provided to stopped-out students should not be the phone number or email address of an individual staff member who may vacate his or her position before the student responds. Instead, colleges should use a main office phone number or an email address to which a team of individuals has access.

National Student Clearinghouse reports that just 38% of re-enrolled stopouts return to the same institution, so college staff need to make sure departing students are aware that the college is eager to have them return when their life circumstances allow. This invitation can go a long way in addressing students’ fears about whether the college will support their eventual return to campus.

Practice profile

At Florida State University (FSU), administrators sought to encourage more near-graduates to complete their programs of study. Delegating this responsibility to colleges with varied budgets and capacity would lead to inconsistencies. Instead, university leaders dedicated half of a centralized full-time position to focus on reaching out to stopped-out students who had completed more than 100 semester hours toward a degree in any of FSU’s colleges.

This commitment from the university provides returning stopouts with consistent support from someone who is knowledgeable about available resources, experienced in troubleshooting with students, and committed to the success of these returning students.

Outreach from this staff member is very detailed. She spends about 10 minutes preparing for each call. She reviews students’ advising reports, existing notes in Navigate, and transcripts in order to better understand former students’ unique circumstances. During the conversation, she talks to them about what happened during their last enrollment, potential resources they need to succeed in the future, and what steps must be taken to complete their degrees, including online options.

Since this effort was initiated in the spring of 2017, FSU has reached out to more than 1,800 students, and about half of those are actively engaged or enrolled. To date, these efforts have led 675 former stopouts to graduate from FSU.

Colleges that empower staff with knowledge of community and campus resources will support students more effectively than those with bureaucratic practices that stand in the way of student progress.

Step 2 | Enable re-enrollment

Once you have found your stopped-out students, demonstrate enthusiasm for their return. Remove barriers that impede re-enrollment and implement low-cost incentives that can have an outsize effect on students’ desire to re-enroll at your institution.

Colleges that are leading the way with returning stopouts use simplified reapplication forms. We heard from some colleges that they required students to provide only their updated contact information, with staff completing the rest of the process. In addition, most colleges waived their reapplication fee to encourage students to get started.

Re-enrollment can be a challenge for many returning students. In our research calls, institutions attempted to make the process as easy as possible for students, assigning staff to work with them throughout the financial aid application and verification process or resolving administrative holds that would otherwise prohibit registration.

As we mentioned previously, students returning after stopping out need a clear path to graduation. Address any barriers that might delay completion. For example, student graduation plans should highlight limitations such as courses that are offered in select terms across the year. As students get closer to graduation, consider offering priority registration to ensure they can get the classes they need at times that work for their schedules.

Practice profile

The Bachelor of Liberal Studies was introduced at the University of Kentucky to create individualized programs and serve as a degree-completion option for students. After introducing this degree option, college staff realized that 178 students who had stopped out met the requirements for the degree with no additional coursework required.

The university conducted outreach to students who already met the requirements, as well as many others who would benefit from the degree program flexibility and the recent addition of expanded online course offerings. To date, hundreds of students who otherwise might not have graduated have completed this degree.

Many returning student stopouts are dealing with more complex circumstances than traditional students. They may be working or raising families. Many of the college leaders we spoke to in this research indicated they modify operational hours and services to provide support to students. They provide evening services or use Navigate to interact and support students who cannot spend much time on campus. Shared workspaces for academic planning, text interactions, and timely nudges to direct students to take action on a task offer virtual support from afar.

Oftentimes, these students will enroll in online or evening classes. The most effective colleges bolstered online course offerings and support services to ensure students had the tools they needed. Many had extended their online course catalog to provide more pathways for their returning stopouts. Others offered free parking on campus during off-peak hours when returning students are more likely to take classes.

Most importantly, returning student stopouts need to have a single point of contact if new challenges arise. They need someone who can help them navigate situations that could otherwise derail their efforts to complete their college degrees. Colleges that empower staff with knowledge of community and campus resources will support students more effectively than those with bureaucratic practices that stand in the way of student progress.

Program spotlight

The Return to Earn program was started in 2016 with grant funding that was intended to bring back near-graduates by offering them a onetime scholarship. The program is managed through the call center, and during off-peak times, the project director conducts outreach to students who have stopped out and who have earned over 30 credits.

The project director quickly realized that most of these students had stopped out of college due to some kind of life circumstance that was beyond their control. While they were certainly interested in coming back, their lives continued to be incredibly complex, which demanded that he serve as many of their needs as possible or students would likely lose momentum as they were bounced from office to office.

Therefore, the director meets one-on-one with returning stopouts to help them complete the readmission application and financial aid paperwork and also lets them know how to resolve any holds on their accounts.

Many of these students had debt on their student accounts as a result of withdrawing in the middle of the term. When appropriate, the project director works internally to help students secure retroactive medical withdrawals or set up plans to pay outstanding balances.

One unique element in the Return to Earn program is that students are eligible for a onetime scholarship to incentivize their return. This funding can be used to pay current or past balances, but the project director explained to us that in an effort to be a good steward of the limited funding available, the scholarship is made available only after students successfully complete their first term back. Students have a note placed on their records indicating the anticipated award to allow enrollment, but the funds aren’t released until completion of the term.

This approach has led to an incredible 94% success rate in program participants’ first term back at Pueblo Community College. To date, the program has re-enrolled 320 students. Most impressively, of the 320 re-enrolled stopouts since the program’s inception, 207 program participants have now graduated.

Our world is changing. Populations of high school graduates are declining and the needs of students attending college are evolving.

Students have new responsibilities, and their lives are increasingly complex. Many work or raise children while attending college. And higher education has been slow to adapt, leaving too many students falling short of the college credential they sought from our institutions. However, there has been momentum in changing our campuses to better address students’ needs. These improvements will continue to drive increased rates of student success and help our students meet the needs of today’s competitive labor market.

We are better prepared to support today’s students than ever before, so now is the time to reach out to those we have failed in the past and support them through graduation. It’s the right answer for our students, our institutions, and our communities.