(Reuters) - The University of Rhode Island, reeling from a dropout rate among seniors that has doubled from last year, has joined a nationwide trend to encourage dropouts to return for a few last classes and finally earn a college degree.
The school introduced a "Finish What You Started" program in recent months after discovering the dropout rate among its roughly 4,000 seniors had doubled to about 300 from 150 last year, University of Rhode Island (URI) Provost Donald DeHayes said.
"There really isn't a single reason or small number of reasons that people have dropped out," DeHayes said. "We're finding it's as much about a terrible job market as it is being able to afford it."
URI joins several universities across the country with similar programs to bring back dropouts who had earned most of their degree credits, including the University of New Mexico, University of Oklahoma and University of Kentucky.
"It's certainly a trend that's gaining momentum," said Patrick Kelly, senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
Most parents expect college to be a four-year financial commitment, yet it has become so common for undergraduates to stretch out their college years that only about a third of students who set out to graduate in four years actually do so, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Just over half finish in six years, said Mike Baumgartner, vice president for finance and special projects at Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
There are "many different voices calling for better completion rates" at universities nationwide, said Michael Tanner, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
"It's important for the public institutions to in fact maintain contact with their graduates and in this case reach out to non-graduates... to say we're here to serve a public purpose and we hope that you can advance yourself and come back and complete a degree," Tanner said.
The University of New Mexico started a program called The Graduation Project in 1997 after discovering its graduation rate had plummeted, said program manager Vanessa Smith. It has since become a model for other universities, she said.
"The idea was, 'Let's recruit them back,'" she said, adding that some 2,200 returning students have graduated through the program, which has a 72 percent graduation rate compared with the university's overall rate of 45 percent.
Rashawn Jackson, 27, had been a full-time student at the University of New Mexico for three years when his wife became pregnant and he stopped attending classes to work.
He took a job at a nuclear power company and was promoted, but then learned he would be unable to continue in his position without a college degree.
"My back was up against the wall," he said. "I put it off and I waited and I kind of drug my feet and it came to a point where I didn't have an option."
Just six hours short of a bachelor's degree in biology, Jackson said The Graduation Project helped him get a scholarship and complete his course work by taking classes online.
"It was kind of like they weren't going to let me fail," said Jackson, who will graduate on May 12.
At URI over the past decade, 2,500 students have left without graduating despite earning most of their degree credits, a school survey showed.
The university has contacted many recent dropouts by phone to offer help with career and academic planning, and about 25 had indicated they would return, DeHayes said. It also sent letters to about 500 dropouts from the past several years.
URI urged the students to complete their degrees because it would improve their long-term earning power and because "we think it's in part our responsibility," DeHayes said.
The Department of Education said many students find it difficult to complete a degree in the once-standard four years because they may change majors, have trouble getting into required courses or temporarily switch to part-time enrollment.
But there appears to be an improving trend.
Data published by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics shows 36.4 percent of students who started college in 2002 graduated by 2006 compared with 33.7 percent who started in 1996 and got a diploma by 2000.
URI's overall graduation rate lagged behind those of 50 peer institutions, according to a report released last year by the federal education statistics center. Still, the university, with about 16,500 students, currently has its second-highest enrollment ever, DeHayes said.
"We'd like to see them complete their degree with us and step into the working world with a URI college diploma," DeHayes said.
"We hope they too will be proud of that," he said.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh