After Paula Arroyo dropped out of college in her second semester a decade ago, she rarely thought about returning.
When the economy recently soured, however, and her job as a skin specialist at a spa was threatened, the 30-year-old Haddon Township woman decided to go back to her alma mater, Camden County College.
She was in for a shock. Her grades - including a bunch of F's incurred when she failed to withdraw from courses after a serious car crash - were still on file, creating a grade-point average that could be hard to overcome.
Then an adviser recommended an academic-forgiveness program, which allows returning students to reset their GPA and start over.
Doubts about returning quickly evaporated, Arroyo said, making her "100 percent sure I wanted to come back."
Camden County College is one of many two- and four-year schools in the region welcoming dropouts back to campus. Others are reaching out to students who either left two or three years ago or were dismissed because of failing grades, including Community College of Philadelphia, Bucks County Community College, Rutgers University, and Rowan University.
The amnesty policies are enjoying new attention amid a national push to persuade former students to come back to complete degrees.
President Obama's American Graduation Initiative aims to boost higher-education attendance and graduation rates, while Mayor Nutter is supporting an initiative focused on bringing back students who were halfway or more toward obtaining their degree when they left.
At Rowan, a grade-forgiveness program was reinstated this semester, 15 years after its stumbling predecessor fell by the wayside. The program was resurrected in recognition that college training is vital in today's job market and that students who didn't make it the first time should get another chance, said Jim Newell, an associate provost for academic affairs.
Students who dropped out at least two years ago may resume classes without the worry that their poor past performance will blemish their degrees. Students who had "difficulty adapting to college" due to excessive partying or some other problem when they were 18 may have matured and may be ready to succeed, Newell said.
But like many colleges, Rowan won't offer a third chance.
Christine Hagedorn, assistant dean of student services at Bucks County Community College, said students leave for many reasons - financial problems, pregnancy, or they "just weren't sure what college was supposed to be doing for them."
"Life can get in the way," she said, "and students can get derailed."
About 70 students return each year and take advantage of Bucks County College's "academic-restart" policy. A few years ago, Hagedorn said, the college also sent a letter inviting back dropouts.
"They were feeling intimidated, embarrassed that they didn't make it, but if we reach our hand out," it gives them the confidence to return, she said.
Colleges want to give returning nontraditional students a chance, because often they come back "more energized, and they want to do the work," said Joe Schiavo, chair of the Scholastic Standing Committee at Rutgers-Camden.
At Rutgers, only some of students' past grades are forgiven when calculating the GPA; all of them will appear on a student's transcript. Still, he said, colleges generally recognize that students who overcome a past poor performance are generally on the road to success.
Camden County College has been sending postcards to student dropouts the last three years, said spokeswoman Susan Coulby. Nearly 50 have returned and taken advantage of reset GPAs, she said.
Without the reset, a student must "dig out of a hole," a sometimes impossible feat, Coulby said.
The program also provides students a reason to return to their alma mater, rather than to transfer to another college, Coulby said. Normally, the new college accepts credits from the old school, but the GPA is not carried over.
Arroyo came back a year ago to pursue nursing. And her GPA has climbed to 3.35, putting her on the dean's list.
"Now I'm very into my education and am very involved in my classes," she said. "When I was just out of high school, I was still living at home, and then you're going to college because you think that's what you're supposed to do. But now, I'm not just doing it because I have to do it; it's because I want to be doing it."