Most of today’s college students have adult responsibilities, such as parenting, earning a living, and paying for college. Unfortunately, adult students are often treated as an afterthought by colleges and policymakers. Over the last 20 years, more than 37 million students have left school without receiving a degree that would greatly improve their economic prospects.

This report examines the journeys of determined individuals known as comebackers. They’re one-time students who get back on track, persevere and earn their degrees. Their stories can help policymakers and postsecondary institutions design systems that support success for today’s students.


Our goal is to understand how to bring comebackers back to complete their degrees. We view comebackers as individuals with a multitude of talents that can benefit themselves, their families, their communities, colleges, and employers.

Here are the findings of our research:

  1. Among comebackers who graduated, 69 percent stayed continuously enrolled until they finished.
  2. Starts and stops were not unusual for comebackers who graduated, but these periods of enrollment dormancy were not signs of failure. Rather, students often used them to prepare for a more opportune time to resume their education.
  3. For one in 10 comebackers who graduated, the barrier they faced was an administrative one. Clearing bureaucratic tangles such as filing a graduation application or paying a fee balance was often all it took for these students to earn a degree.
  4. Among potential completers, a subset of comebackers who had stopped out after two or more years of academic progress, nearly two-thirds had almost four years’ worth of credit without earning a degree.
  5. The top reason cited for finishing school was to achieve a personal goal; others: to be a role model to family and to attain personal satisfaction.
  6. Successful comebackers said supportive faculty and staff—even more than family members, mentors, and advisors—was the top factor in helping them finish.