One course shy of graduation, Chris Barrett left college about five years ago, unable to pay some tuition debt.

He recently got a call from Chestnut Hill College, offering him a $3,500 scholarship that would wipe out his debt and cover the cost of his final course.

“I wasn’t sure if it was real or not,” said Barrett, 35, a deputy sheriff from Philadelphia.

He was pleasantly surprised to find out it was.

With a $300,000 gift from an alumna and her husband, Chestnut Hill has launched its Helping Others by Providing Education (HOPE) scholarship for eligible students in its Accelerated Adult Degree Program who have left school with more than 75% of their course work complete. Fourteen students, including Barrett, have been enrolled in the first cohort, with classes for most students starting this week.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had is many of our students are starting their degree, but they’re running out of aid [when they are] almost to the finish line,” said April Fowlkes, executive director of the accelerated program, which enrolls about 400, the majority of them women and students of color.

The effort at Chestnut Hill is becoming increasingly popular at colleges around the country, looking for ways to help more students return to and complete college, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor, whose HOPE Center for College, Community and Justice focuses on homelessness, hunger, and financial barriers to college. While the aim is to help students, it also helps institutions financially and improves their graduation numbers, she said. Colleges are looking at the pool of declining high school graduates and they’re trying to get the students that they can, she said.

“Colleges and universities used to look at somebody who dropped out as C’est la vie,” she said. “They can’t say C’est la vie anymore.”

Morehouse College, a historically black school in Atlanta, last month began offering an online program with reduced tuition for students who hadn’t completed college. Closer to home, Temple University in 2019 launched its Broad Street Finish Line scholarship program that in part provides aid to current students who are close to finishing their degree and need some help.

» READ MORE: Temple to offer new scholarship to help students graduate

About 36 million Americans have some college but haven’t completed. Those numbers grew as the pandemic hit and job loss forced some people to pause their education, Goldrick-Rab said. New federal funding offers support to students who quit during the pandemic, she said. Colleges should help students attain that aid and provide other support to keep them, she added.

Malik Brown, president and CEO of Graduate! Philadelphia, said “a critical mass” of colleges in the region are looking at the adult learner as a growing customer base but also as a way to help contribute to the region’s economic recovery by offering adults a path to return. More schools are looking at giving students college credit for industry-relevant experience and helping them with debt, said Brown, whose organization focuses on helping nontraditional adult students finish college.

“You do see a good number of colleges really examining institutional back balances and creating ways that students can get on partial payment plans, enroll, and pay back balances,” he said.

» READ MORE: For adult students, the journey to a degree can be long - and rewarding.

At Chestnut Hill, 1977 alumna and board member Margaret McCaffery and her husband, Michael, made the donation that will provide for $100,000 in scholarships each year over three years. McCaffery, a retired educator from Delaware, wanted to help students in the adult program, whose average age is 37 and who are often overlooked by other scholarships. The college went through its records and identified students who had at least a 2.5 GPA and three-quarters of their course work completed and who left school in the last five years, Fowlkes said.

The college found contact information for nearly 50 and reached out. It heard back from 22, 14 of whom ultimately enrolled, she said.

“These students historically have faced considerable financial, academic, and personal difficulties related to their studies, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the H.O.P.E. program will help them make it across the finish line,” said Sister Carol Jean Vale, president.

The college helped students take care of their outstanding balances first and apply for financial aid, Fowlkes said. Then it helped the students develop a plan to get to completion, she said, so they know what they might need to cover out-of-pocket.

“Every student’s situation was different,” she said.

Karen Phillips, 40, of Fishtown, had been going back and forth to school for more than two decades, with only four classes left to get her bachelor’s in human services. Then she got an email from Chestnut Hill.

“I was in tears,” she said. “It’s not only encouraging financially, it’s also motivating. I have accountability now. In the past, it was just my money.”

Kimberly Solis, 39, of Langhorne, was seven courses from completion when she left school last April. Her father had just died from COVID-19 and she and her coworkers were putting money into a fund to help colleagues who were furloughed from their hospitality/tourism jobs afford health insurance. That was money she was saving for school.

The college gave her just over $4,000 to cover her outstanding balance, she said. She begins courses to finish her bachelor’s in organizational dynamics this week.

Barrett, the father of three young children, said he had been putting off finishing his degree in criminal justice until he could pay his balance. All he needs is one more math class.

“It was really thoughtful that Chestnut Hill decided to reach out,” he said. “Even I almost forgot about it.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.