More than 40 million students in the United States—nearly 6.6 million in California alone—have attended college or university without earning a degree, according to a 2023 National Student Clearinghouse study. The main reasons these students “stop out” are financial, family, and/or personal commitments, according to a study on disengaged learners from StraighterLine and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. In response to the barriers that discourage former students from reenrolling and graduating, the California State University launched its Graduation Initiative 2025, which requires the university system’s 23 campuses to implement programs that will increase graduation rates and eliminate the equity gap disproportionately impacting students from underrepresented groups. California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) created the Once a Toro, Always a Toro degree completion pathway for “some college, no degree” students who stopped out and didn’t realize their “seat” was still waiting and ready for them in the classroom.
The Once a Toro, Always a Toro program is CSUDH’s commitment to supporting adult learners through an equitable, student-centered experience that encourages inclusivity. Once a Toro, Always a Toro seeks to correct California’s lag in producing the necessary number of college and university graduates to meet workforce demands, and also address the racial and ethnic disparity among adults with some college but no degree. A 2018 study by California Competes, a nonpartisan policy and research organization, found that two-thirds of white adults in California earned a degree from higher education institutions, compared with half of Latinx, Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander Californians.
The university’s resolve to create such a program began close to home. Through conversations, CSUDH academic advisors learned that many former students—city council members, business leaders and executives, among others—wanted to come back, take courses, and finally finish their education. To support their academic pursuits and career goals, the university envisioned a paradigm shift through the Once a Toro, Always a Toro program in developing a returning-student-centric-culture. CSUDH officials adhered to the following strategies in developing a returning-student-centric philosophy:
- Engage campus stakeholders in a culture of supporting the unique needs of some college, no degree students by creating a seamless reenrollment and delivery of student support services.
- Acknowledge the returning students’ professional skills and experience—military service, work portfolios, and College Level Examination Program scores, among others, through Credit for Prior Learning.
- Provide high-quality academic and professional advising and coaching, guaranteeing the degree pathway is clearly delineated and documented with minimal obstacles toward success.
- Collaborate with program faculty members and industry partners to make sure curriculum and student support services are strategically curated for adult learners in preparation for meeting the needs of today’s workforce.
The interventions that emerged from these strategies seek to increase the reenrollment and graduation rate of former students by affording them equal access to higher education that improve their lives and social mobility in the community.
CSUDH is designated as a minority-serving institution, Hispanic-serving institution, and predominantly undergraduate institution, with 58% of its enrolled undergraduate students receiving Pell Grants.
Once a Toro, Always a Toro began with an assessment of current offerings for returning students . University leaders examined existing programs for returning students, as well as the financial aid offerings, academic support, and career advising available to this population. They also engaged the campus community, sharing literature, research, and findings from listening sessions with campus leaders along with CSUDH students who left without completing their degrees. These former students discussed what initially drove them to come to the university, why they left, and what it would take to bring them back. These evaluations and insights revealed institutional change was needed to develop effective strategies for achieving greater rates of reenrollment, persistence, and graduation among stopped-out students.
Recruiting students with some college and no degree required a marketing strategy aimed at creating a sense of belonging: welcoming returning students, rather than shaming them for not persisting with their education. CSUDH developed a campaign using targeted phone calls, social media outreach, and other messaging. A centralized website provided these adult learners with detailed instructions and FAQs, as well as an “Ask Teddy” chatbot. Returning students’ experiences were curated in different storytelling mediums to reengage adult learners in higher education through in-person and virtual programming.
CSUDH utilizes a number of advising and analytics platforms to document and inform the academic planning and services for enrolled adult learners. Data analytics and effective case management help determine the services that are functionally and culturally appropriate for the students so they can be enveloped in a strong environment of belonging. In addition, predictive analytics for students offer strategy data for coursework.
The initiative includes several returning-student-centric features intended to clear the path toward graduation:
- Student Success Centers that connect students to the programs and wrap-around services specific to their discipline, including advisors, career opportunities, internships, and mentors.
- A streamlined reenrollment admissions process, including financial wellness support, payment plans, and calculators.
- Evening, hybrid, weekend and online courses and degree completion offerings, as well as an explanation of the skills taught and the chosen major’s earning potential.
Determining the impact of Once a Toro, Always a Toro involves not just analyzing the figures but recognizing the challenges the students had to overcome. When CSUDH set the program in motion in fall 2022, it had 360 students. In spring, another 105 adult learners joined. These students were among the 3,128 that university officials targeted: those who had left in the past five years, were in good standing, and had been gone for a year or more. The demographic breakdown of that cohort is as follows:
- Female (58%), male (42%), and nonbinary (0.03%);
- Latinx (65%), African American (11%), Asian American (6 %); White (5%), Two or More Races (3%), Pacific Islander (.40%), and Native American (.06%);
- Between the ages of 25 and 64 (CSUDH’s average age is 23 years old);
- Students with identified/diagnosed disability that requires formal accommodations and services (4%);
- Pell Grant eligible (60%);
- First generation (48%), parent attended some college (24%), parent graduated college (16%); and Unknown (12%);
- Completed credits (66) out of 120 credits to graduate.
The university anticipates the following outcomes as the program continues:
- In the next two years, enrollment and reengagement of stopped-out students is expected to increase by 50% and engagement between stopped-out students and advisors and coaches by 75%.
- In the next three to five years, retention of students on the path toward graduation is expected to increase by 25% and the number of students on the path toward meeting graduation requirements by 25%.
- In the next five+ years, graduation of stopped-out students is expected to increase by 25%.
In addition to these goals, CSUDH plans to analyze reenrollment, retention, and graduation rates to determine the effectiveness of Once a Toro, Always a Toro.
The underlying success of the returning student-centric program involves the cultivation of a deep understanding and awareness of some college, no degree students themselves, their reasons for stopping out, and their motivations for returning. CSUDH has been learning to recognize and appreciate that some students will need to take a break from pursuing their degree or certificate because of mounting financial commitments or family responsibilities—and their decisions need to be respected. Some university officials described listening to stopped-out students who cried as they shared their stories about why they had to leave college or the traumatic experiences they faced during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting their college attendance. As a result, CSUDH needed to provide students with a higher education experience that not only welcomes their return but also supports them on their own degree completion path. For some students, Once a Toro, Always a Toro is the first step for them in a healing process from what they went through that led them to leave college or university in the first place. As such, the program’s benefit can also be measured qualitatively, in how a stopped-out student feels reconnected to their higher education journey.
Getting this program on their radar, and letting these students know CSUDH is their home, too, is expected to impact the community at large through the students’ improved lives and social mobility. The university anticipates that these adult learners collectively will contribute $45.6 million in annual state tax revenue and have lifetime earnings totaling $2.1 billion after completing their degrees.
Some higher education institutions are hiring enrollment management companies and telling some college, no degree students how to reapply to their college or university. However, many returning students are not inclined to just reenroll. Faculty and staff must rethink what it means to support students with some college, no degree from reenrollment through graduation. First, the college or university should be excited—and grateful—that these undergraduates reached out and let them know, “We’re ready for you!” Then, they must be willing to cultivate nurturing relationships with returning students that involve respecting what the student is going through now and has been dealing with; doing so requires an investment in one-on-one support and case management. Most importantly, colleges and universities must adopt the mindset that even though they did not retain these students the first time, higher education institutions can’t afford to make it difficult for them to graduate the second time around.
“It is only through programs such as Once a Toro, Always a Toro that our deepest need is met—to feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and the ability to contribute our own voices and experiences to create opportunities for generations to come.”
Stephanie Esquivel, student in the CSUDH Once a Toro, Always a Toro program