Kai Ryssdal: However students get their textbooks -- on an iPad or the old-fashioned way -- those books don't do any good unless they're actually used.
There are 37 million people in this country who've started college, who have some credits -- but never finished. When they do that, when they drop out, there are costs -- to them, and to the rest of us, in the billions of dollars, in wasted loans and grants and lost opportunities. Those costs are one reason college dropouts are starting to get more attention from the Obama administration on down.
But finding ways for people to finish their degrees might mean rethinking the way Americans go to college. Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks reports.
Emily Hanford: For a long time, no one paid much attention to how many people were dropping out of college.
Hadass Sheffer is executive director of a Philadelphia program that helps former students come back. She says the attitude was:
Hadass Sheffer: You dropped out, it's your fault. And we're saying no. We have so many people who are not finishing college. To me that's a systems failure, it's not the failure of the individuals.
Stan Jones of Complete College America agrees.
Stan Jones: The colleges that we have now were really designed for traditional students that came out of good college prep high schools, lived in the dormitory, went full-time.
Today's college students don't fit that profile. Most of them commute to campus and nearly a third have full-time jobs. Finishing a degree is tough.
Marilyn Johnson Jackson: Between leaving work and getting out to the college, there was no dinner fixed, there was nothing done. My world was crazy.
Marilyn Johnson Jackson could only manage the stress of night classes, two jobs and life as a single mom for so long. She gave up on the idea of ever getting her degree -- and then discovered a new online program. At first, she was skeptical.
Jackson: How can you take a class online? I just didn't get the concept.
But once she started...
Jackson: Hmm, I like this. I can get out of the bed and walk right in here to my computer, do my homework, and I'm through for the day.
Getting students like Jackson to come back by offering flexible and convenient programs was once a market owned mostly by for-profit colleges, but traditional schools are catching on. Jackson finished her degree online through a community college.
John McGee did too. Online, he could move at his own pace and didn't have to sit through a typical 16-week semester.
McGee: Learning became interesting, because I felt like, man, I'm finally accomplishing something, finally accomplishing something.
As a working professional with seven years of military service, McGee didn't like taking classes with 18-year-olds. The online program allowed him to get credit for his experience. McGee finished an associate's degree in less than a year and quickly got two promotions. Seems straightforward, but for people figuring out how to get back to school, finding the right program can be a daunting task.
Julia Capece: I didn't know where to start, who to contact. I didn't have a clue.
Julia Capece quit college five years ago when juggling work and school got the best of her. She's now a city clerk, but without a degree, she isn't eligible for promotion. Desperate to finish but not knowing how, she finally found Graduate! Philadelphia, a city-supported program that helps dropouts come back.
Counselor: Hey Julia.
Capece: Hi Mr. Mac.
Counselor: Come on back.
Capece is meeting with her counselor at the "comebackers center" located in a downtown mall. Photos of smiling graduates hang from the ceiling.
Counselor: OK, so all the other paperwork that had to get over to the admissions office you've gotten it there?
Capece: Yes, mailed out my transcripts on Monday.
Capece is applying to an associate's program in business. She'd hoped to finish the science degree she started, but the classes weren't offered online or at night. So she's pretty much starting over. Her goal is to eventually transfer for a bachelor's.
Capece: Yeah, we're looking at a five-year plan. So by the time I'm 30, 31, I'll be in good shape.
Capece says she wishes she'd finished her degree the first time around, but plan B is better than no plan at all.
I'm Emily Hanford for Marketplace.
Ryssdal: For more about getting dropouts back to college, check out the American RadioWorks documentary, "Some College, No Degree."