For Beverly Nordine, life has been a rickety roller coaster, but College Now Greater Cleveland, working with Cleveland State University (CSU), recently smoothed her ride.
As a child, Nordine was diagnosed with scoliosis kyphosis, or curvature of the spine. Dyslexia slowed her high school education, but when she graduated at 20, Nordine immediately enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College. In short order, she earned a two-year degree and transferred her credits to CSU, where she began studying history.
Then, her mom fell seriously ill, and Nordine became her sole caregiver. Her grades slipped, and her school attendance was sporadic. After her mom died, Nordine, overcome by depression and anxiety, dropped out of college. Subsequently, her cousin was diagnosed with stage 4B lung cancer. Nordine accompanied her to chemo and radiation treatments, but she passed away in 2012.
“It was a lot of loss and grief slamming me again and again,” Nordine says.
Nordine fought back emotionally. She wanted to return to CSU, but the university cut off her financial aid due to her sudden withdrawal from classes years earlier. In fact, she owed CSU between $3,000 and $4,000. Her GPA was through the floor.
A friend who worked at CSU gifted her money to repay the debt and told her about the (Re)Connect to College program, a relatively new partnership between the university and College Now. The goal is to bring students who dropped out of college back to school.
Thanks to the program’s network of support, Nordine was able to re-enroll at CSU. She graduated in December.
“The graduation ceremony was overwhelming,” says Nordine, now 43 and living in Lakewood. “It didn’t feel real, and there was a lot of crying involved. It’s hard to believe that I actually have my degree.”
Last year, the (Re)Connect program was given the National College Access Network’s annual To & Through Award of Excellence, which recognizes a school that collaborates with an NCAN member — in this case, College Now — to ensure that students receive the support they need to graduate.
Since forming its partnership with CSU, College Now — normally associated with helping financially challenged high school pupils prepare for college — has established programs similar to (Re)Connect at seven other institutions of higher learning in Ohio.
A demographic cliff
Julie Szeltner, director of adult programs and services at College Now, says her organization awards about 300 scholarships a year to high school pupils heading to college. Officials there knew that many scholarship recipients were not finishing their education due to financial hardships, family crises or a myriad of other reasons. The dropout rate was contributing to a brain drain.
“We are coming near a demographic cliff in Ohio,” Szeltner says. “We don’t have enough traditional students to fill the seats in colleges. People aren’t enrolling, and we don’t have the bright, skilled workforce to fill the jobs we have.”
According to Team NEO’s 2019 Aligning Opportunities report, of Northeast Ohio’s 4.3 million people, 37,600 should receive bachelor’s degrees every year based on national averages. Instead, just 31,300 Northeast Ohioans are earning four-year degrees annually.
That means thousands of positions, including those in information technology, remain vacant. The Team NEO study found that in 2018, more than 12,600 IT positions, including more than 5,300 entry-level jobs, needed filled. However, post-high school institutions awarded IT credentials to only about 2,200 students.
“We don’t have the right talent here to attract businesses and keep them here,” Szeltner says. “The adult student is a really important missing piece to that.”
The challenge was finding these students. College Now, which is embedded in more than 80 Greater Cleveland high schools, has no trouble locating high school pupils. How would it reach nontraditional older students who left college and were widespread?
CSU was previously contacting its dropouts, sending annual postcards asking them to return. About 2 percent of its former students came back. College Now offered to ramp up efforts and requested that CSU share its student data. The university agreed, and the (Re)Connect program was born in 2016.
College Now, working toward a 5 percent student-return rate, sent emails to about 4,000 ex-CSU students, then texted and called those who didn’t respond. The organization told them it could assist them with financial aid, debt counseling and career advising if they returned to school.
One of those contacted was Nordine, but the thought of re-enrolling terrified her. It had been 10 years since she left school, and she wasn’t sure she could study and research anymore. (Re)Connect made her aware of tutoring services, and her class and program advisers worked together to support her.
Nordine was among 253 nontraditional students who re-enrolled in the first two years of (Re)Connect, a return rate of 6 percent, and 47 of those students have graduated. Szeltner says the numbers seem small, but not to those students or CSU.
“We gave them hope,” Szeltner says. “They were close to graduation, and just getting them across the finish line was a major accomplishment.”
Last year, College Now joined a national initiative called Degrees When Due, which shares the mission of bringing adult students back to school for degrees. Through that program, College Now has established partnerships with the universities of Akron and Toledo, Bowling Green State University, UC Blue Ash and Lorain County Community, Sinclair Community and Stark State colleges.
Degrees When Due taught College Now to focus on lower-risk former students, who had better chances of success. Those who, for example, were doing well and close to graduation. Also, Degrees When Due asks participating schools to determine if any particular classes are tripping up students.
“[Degrees When Due] was an opportunity to do the work better,” Szeltner says. “With eight partners now, we learn a lot from them.”
Through College Now, Cleveland has been named a “talent hub” — where agencies and schools work together to increase the number of college graduates — by the Lumina and Kresge foundations. That means a one-time, $125,000 grant and chance to learn from other talent hubs, including those in Dayton and Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, Nordine, who plans to enter a graduate program in history at CSU this fall, advocated for (Re)Connect to the CSU board of trustees and university President Harlan Sands last fall. She was nervous preparing for her presentation, but once she started speaking, her passion took over.
“It meant a lot for me to get up there and thank everybody,” Nordine says. “I wanted them to understand what the program meant for me.”