Pueblo Community College Main Building

Pueblo Community College Student Jessica SandovalWhether it’s caring for an aging parent or dealing with medical issues, life events can derail students’ college plans. To get students back in the classroom, Pueblo Community College (PCC) piloted a program that offers financial, academic and moral support for returning learners—and the state is scaling its successful model to help more Coloradans finish what they started.

An estimated 680,000 Coloradans have some college credit but no degree, leaving many in a precarious position. Without the earning power of a degree or certificate, those who stopped out may struggle to pay back student loans and secure a higher-paying job.

Courting these students has long been a goal for Richie Ince, the downtown studio director for PCC. Each semester his team contacts former students and asks them why they didn’t re-enroll.

“I never heard anybody say they left because they didn’t like school—they left because life happened,” said Ince, noting that most students maintained strong GPAs and were just a few credits shy of graduating. “I remembered that we had some unspent scholarship dollars and thought we should use those funds to go after these students.”

His idea inspired the Return to Earn program, which draws on Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative funds to support students who come back to PCC. Students pay for tuition up front and receive reimbursements after they pass classes with C’s or better.

Since Return to Earn launched in 2016, nearly 350 students have successfully completed their certificate or degree.

Since Return to Earn launched in 2016, nearly 350 students have successfully completed their certificate or degree in fields as diverse as nursing, automotive technology and early childhood education. In the 2020-2021 school year alone, 91 percent of recipients passed their classes successfully.

“We roll out the red carpet for these students,” Ince said. “We meet one-on-one to complete their admission application and FAFSA, schedule advising appointments and offer assistance where needed.”

Jessica Sandoval, a radiologic technology student from Rocky Ford, Colorado, says this holistic support has been key to her success at PCC. After stopping out for a year due to financial issues, she says resources from Return to Earn and TRIO, a campus leadership program, have empowered her to finish this summer.

“They made it possible for me,” she said, speaking of Ince and other advisors. “If I didn’t get the support I’m getting, I don’t know if I would be able to graduate from this program.”

The statewide version of Return to Earn, called Finish What You Started (FWYS), will leverage federal stimulus dollars to fund scholarships for returning students. So far three community colleges—Community College of Aurora, Front Range Community College and Otero College—are accepting FWYS scholarship applications, and more schools plan to launch programs over the coming months.

With the pandemic upending people’s lives, Ince believes programs like FWYS are even more crucial to help students reach their education goals.

“While going to college during a global pandemic, students had to balance home life and getting their own children through virtual learning, as well as many other obstacles,” he said. “The success our Return to Earn students blew my expectations out of the water.”