According to a New York Times article released in May, more than 40 percent of American students who enroll in four-year universities have not finished their degree within six years, a staggering number considering almost 70 percent of high school graduates choose to go to a four year college.

But no matter the reason students do not complete their degrees, Nancy Rabidoux, program coordinator for the Finish What You Started program at the University of Rhode Island, wants to change that.

The Finish What You Started program gives people a second chance to come back to college and pick up where they left off, using their prior credits and sometimes real world  experience to help finish their degrees, Rabidoux says.

The program started in the fall of 2011, when URI officials, like Vice Provost Dean Libutti, noticed a group of about 300 students in the past year that were close to graduating but did not complete credit requirements. They noted that in the past decade, “nearly two thousand students had at least 75 credits and didn’t graduate,” Libutti said.

He explains that this is a national trend that the University decided to do something about. According to Libutti, a study by the Hanover Group in 2012 revealed that 37 million Americans have earned some college credit, but do not have a degree.

Libutti and a group of faculty in the University College and College of Continuing Education decided to pilot the program on a small scale, to see if people were interested in coming back. The plan went viral.

“We were inundated within a couple months,” Libutti said.

Rabidoux and Project Co-Coordinator Connie Pritchard currently have 130 students enrolled in the program between URI’s Kingston and Providence campuses, and have had 68 finish their degrees and graduate since the program started in 2012. Rabidoux says the university has also been in contact with over 900 individuals who are interested in the program.

Unlike advisors for traditional students, Rabidoux and her fellow advisors in the program help students throughout almost all aspects of their readmission and schooling process all the way until their graduation, coaching them on everything from what classes to pick, and how to handle financial aid, to where to park their cars on campus.

“This has to be convenient, because going back to school is a huge sacrifice,” Rabidoux said.  “[Many returning students] have families and children, or are working over 40 hours a week.  We’re like an easy button.”

This was true for Chantel O’Neill, a mom of four who had left college after her second year of college to be with her husband. After trying a couple times to take classes and leaving to be with her family, she decided “this was the semester I’m going back.”

Through the Finish What You Started program, O’Neill plans to work towards a degree in writing and rhetoric, and is proud of herself for getting this far.

“I reached this point where I’m realizing that my kids don’t need me like they did,” O’Neill said.  “My husband owns his own business, and I realized I might be that old lady at the house with nothing to do, and I need something that gets my blood flowing,” she says. “At the same time, I think that its also providing an example for my kids. I don’t want them to not finish college, but I want them to see that it’s never too late.

Even though O’Neill isn’t officially accepted in the university due to admission requirements, the Finish What You Started program allows her to be a nonmatriculated student, where she can still take classes that will eventually count towards her degree until her transcripts are in order.

“They will all count and add up to something as soon as I’m accepted into whatever program I choose. I think that part is important to note. People who want to come back to school but maybe aren’t ready to jump in with both feet can still take classes. Eventually you’ll end up with something,” O’Neill says.

Like many returning college students, O’Neill was intimidated by the application and admissions process, but felt the faculty in Finish What You Started eased the process along for her.

“After I called Nancy and told her my story, she really became like my personal concierge. I realized it seemed manageable, seemed like something I could do.”

Kile Stetson, a returning URI student enrolled in the Finish What You Started program since May 2013, certainly agrees.

“It felt good to have someone on my side to guide me,” Stetson said.  “It was weird to go back.  Any question I ever had Nancy would get back to me right away. It made the process really easy, and a lot smoother than I thought it would be.”

Stetson left school in December of 2012. “When I dropped out, I was in a weird place with school. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. Soon afterwards, he started to work as a salesman for a car dealership. It was there that he realized his love for marketing and sales. It was with this experience that he geared his focus towards marketing, and decided to finish the political science degree at URI and use it in conjunction with his marketing experience.

Stetson began his classes through Finish What You Started with a winter J-Term study abroad trip to Belize this year, where he earned three of his credits.

“It was exactly what I needed,” Stetson said.  “My attitude completely changed. I appreciated what college education was all about and what I needed it for.”

He says that after getting back into the college grind with some experience, he was more focused, “going back to school with a purpose. I was more motivated.”

About a year later, Stetson is eager to graduate on Dec. 8.

“It’s awesome, really,” Stetson said.  “I didn’t think I would ever come back to school…This was exactly what I needed.”

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Emma Gauthier
Emma is a senior journalism and English double major with a minor in political science from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She has worked for the Cigar since her first semester at URI as a staff reporter, then web editor, news editor and finally Editor in Chief. Emma also edits for the URI research magazine, Momentum, and hopes to find a career in political reporting upon her graduation in May.