Helping Your Students Cross the Finish Line: Recruiting Former Seniors

Categories: News

By: Kathi M. Baucom and Janet D. Daniel

Susie Bernard, now a vice president at North American Windows Corporation, left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) in 1993 only a few classes shy of a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences. “I found it easier to go to work; college was a harder choice,” says Bernard. Now, almost 15 years later, she has returned to the university through the 49er Finish Program in order to complete her degree. Bernard, along with a growing number of former seniors, is part of an innovative program that reaches out to former seniors who left UNC Charlotte without completing their degrees. Modeled on the University of New Mexico’s Graduation Project, the 49er Finish Program has helped more than 357 former students—each of whom had already completed 90 or more semester hours—graduate within the past four years. With their “I can do it” spirit, these returning students epitomize the UNC Charlotte campus mascot, a tenacious gold miner called the “49er.”

UNC Charlotte, the fourth largest of the 17 UNC system schools, is located in Charlotte, NC, a metropolitan region with a population of approximately 700,000. The student population of 25,064 includes 19,756 undergraduates. More than 3,800 students are 25 years of age or older and are pursuing their first undergraduate degree. Like other UNC campuses, UNC Charlotte has invested in numerous retention efforts over the years. But none of our efforts had focused specifically on seniors who left college with a passing grade point average and who were only a few courses shy of earning their degrees. After researching the number of seniors we were losing, we decided to invest additional resources in recruiting these former UNC Charlotte students to return to campus through the 49er Finish Program. Our return on this investment has been significant!

How did the program begin?

  • We drafted a business case for our own graduation project and included a proposal in the university’s five-year strategic plan and annual budget request for 2005–06.
  • In fall 2005, we identified the director of the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES) as the project leader. The director worked with the Office of Institutional Research to identify former students who had earned 90 or more credit hours, had a 2.0 GPA and no disciplinary suspensions and who had left in the past seven years. We learned that over a seven-year period we had “lost” 2,464 seniors who met these criteria. These students’ average cumulative GPA was 2.74, so academic performance was not their reason for leaving.
  • The director contacted the Assessment Office to solicit its expertise for development of a survey to be mailed to these former students along with a postcard that could be returned if the students wished to be contacted about returning to school to complete their degrees.
  • Enrollment Management provided $5,000 in seed money to develop and mail a survey to these former seniors in fall 2005. OASES staff worked with the Alumni Office to run the names through the “Alumni Finder” process in order to verify current addresses (the cost was $0.85 per name plus a $500 batch fee). By March 2006, this matching process produced “clean” addresses for 1,229 former seniors.
  • In accordance with the business case included in the five-year strategic plan, OASES received $10,000 in one-time funds from Academic Affairs to hire a temporary coordinator to manage the program; a graduate intern in adult education was hired in fall 2005.
  • The associate provost for enrollment management met with deans to explain the program and to ask for their support—particularly regarding academic petitions for exceptions.
  • The 49er Finish coordinator worked with the Office of the Registrar to set up coding in the student information system to track re-admissions and to provide necessary reports.
  • The coordinator developed the 49er Finish Web site and brochures (see

Why had these students left?

The initial survey was mailed to more than 1,200 former students and generated 133 responses. Students reported that they left school primarily because of the following: not getting the courses they needed at times they could take them; difficulty balancing school and life/work demands; inadequate advising; insufficient financial assistance; and dissatisfaction with parking.

Even more important, more than 100 former students returned the postcard asking us to contact them about completing their degrees. OASES staff called these students individually to determine how we could best assist them. This was an exciting opportunity to personalize the university’s interaction with these students!

By fall 2006, 55 students had returned to UNC Charlotte as a result of this initial contact; for that semester alone, they generated approximately $83,000 in tuition, fees and state appropriations.

What benefits did we offer 49er Finish Program participants?

Although we did not have the resources to provide financial support, we were able to provide the personal touch that made students feel welcome and supported. We focused on what we could do for them. For example, we:

  • Eliminated the application fee for re-admission.
  • Provided individual academic advising by OASES counselors (appointments were available days, evenings and Saturdays).
  • Communicated by telephone and email to remind students of important deadlines and/or program changes.
  • Informed students of scholarship monies for which they could apply.
  • Provided a mentoring program, membership opportunity in the Nontraditional Student Organization and referrals to other student services.
  • Advocated as necessary for reasonable exceptions to policy (e.g., helping students request permission to graduate under a former set of general education requirements).

How has the program grown?

Despite a limited budget and staff, we’ve come a long way since administering that first survey.

  • Since 2006, a permanently funded, full-time coordinator in OASES has managed the program. Additional office space has been provided for the coordinator.
  • In spring 2008, the OASES director applied for and received a Bernard Osher Foundation Grant of $50,000 to provide reentry scholarships of up to $5,000 each to adult students for the spring and fall 2008 semesters. The grant was renewed for the 2009–10 academic year and again for 2010–11.
  • In 2009, the 49er Finish Program was recognized by the National Academic Advising Association as an Outstanding Institutional Advising Program.
  • A donor impressed by the program results established a significant scholarship endowment for reentry students.
  • The 49er Finish Program has generated positive press—on the UNC System Web site, in the local newspaper and in alumni magazine articles.
  • As of August 2010 357 49er Finish students had graduated; 86 are currently enrolled!
  • For the spring 2010 semester, 113 49er Finish students enrolled in 729 semester credit hours, generating approximately $375,900 in tuition, fees and state appropriations.
  • We are currently working with a pool of more than 2,200 prospective former students who are eligible to return.

What do 49er Finish students say?

“From providing the necessary forms, to following up with the Registrar’s Office and my respective academic departments to course enrollment, my 49er Finish advisor has been unfailing in her commitment and dedication on my behalf.”

“With the 49er Finish Program, you get access to the entire process under one umbrella with resourceful, talented and professional staff to assist you and work on your behalf.”

Starting a program on your campus

This is the ideal group to recruit! They know the institution; have completed the majority of their degree coursework; and are academically successful. The typical profile of the former UNC Charlotte seniors we contact each semester is as follows: 32 years of age; 2.68 GPA; and completed 113 credit hours before stopping out. They are older and wiser, and they know the value of time and money. A degree can improve their earning power and contribute more to the economy of the region and the state. Finally, they are impressed when their school reaches out to them and provides personal attention. Such a program generates tremendous goodwill! It’s a win-win situation when students re-enroll and graduate. And it is relatively easy to implement:

  • Conduct research to determine the extent to which your institution “loses” seniors prior to graduation; to identify the academic profile of such students; to project revenue generated by potential re-enrollments; and to equate credit hours to dollars.
  • Develop a business case for the project in order to gain higher-level support.
  • Network with similar programs at other institutions to identify “lessons learned.”
  • Craft a proposal for one-time or even permanent funding to develop and implement the initial survey and mailing. (“Piecemeal” the program together if you must!)
  • Hire a graduate student or intern to manage the program if you lack sufficient permanent staff.
  • House the program administration in an office that can provide personalized advising.
  • Garner the support of deans, chairs and department directors by keeping them informed as you establish the structure of the program; trade on your goodwill to secure cooperation from other campus departments.
  • Partner with the Registrar’s Office and the Admissions Office to expedite the re-acceptance and re-enrollment of re-applicants. (Waive the readmit application fee! Consider giving these students priority registration.)
  • Create codes in your student information system to facilitate the tracking of re-applicants; develop a database to log related activities.
  • Develop a marketing plan–to include a specialized Web site, brochures, fact sheets, etc.–to summarize and promote program benefits.
  • Work your PR office to get the word out everywhere (e.g., local paper, alumni magazine, homepage link, campus newspaper, listservs, etc.)!
  • Work with your development office to generate scholarship opportunities.
  • Evaluate effectiveness!

Program models

  • University of New Mexico “Graduation Project”
  • University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh “Graduation Project”
  • “Finish at Home What You Started” at BYU (Brigham Young University); Bachelor of General Studies
  • “Project Complete” at Indiana University, Kokomo
  • University of Kentucky “Project Graduate” (part of the Kentucky Adult Learner Initiative)
  • University of Utah “Returning to the U.” program
  • Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education “Non-traditional No More” project supported by the Lumina Foundation

While a retention program in higher education is not unique, the 49er Finish Program has distinctive and profound features to actively address the needs of a very important population. “When someone drops out, they have unintentionally put limitations on themselves and their career prospects,” says Janet Daniel, OASES director. “By coming back through the 49er Finish Program and graduating, graduates become more marketable. They are more likely to pursue additional degrees; they are better equipped for a competitive economy where college degrees are becoming essential to secure jobs and earn more money.” Ask our 357 graduates: They are our biggest fans!

Kathi M. Baucom is Associate Provost for Enrollment Management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where Janet D. Daniel is Director of the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services.