An academic suspension and 7 years later, a Michigan man gets his degree
The day before his graduation, Seth Noyes stood at his kitchen counter and taped a piece of paper to his cap.
The paper was a letter from Grand Rapids Community College, saying he was under academic suspension.
Noyes originally enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College in fall 2015. On April 29 – nearly seven years later – he graduated with his associate’s degree in business management.
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For years, the academic suspension letter hung above the light switch in his bedroom, covering a piece of his khaki-colored wall.
He crossed the stage with the letter taped to his mortarboard.
“It’s a motivator,” Noyes said. “It was a genuine reminder of what I was going through and why I need to take school seriously.”
The 25-year-old Grand Rapids man is both an academic unicorn – few manage to finish degrees over such a long period – and a poster child for increasingly urgent efforts in Michigan to get diplomas into the hands of more adults.
In Michigan, 21 percent of residents age 25 and older have some college credits but no degree, according to a 2019 report from Michigan independent Colleges and Universities. Turning those dropouts into graduates is considered a key to boosting Michigan’s lagging economy.
In recent years, colleges and universities have amped up programs aimed at retaining struggling students or luring them back to campus, adding academic counselors, implementing early-notice warnings when grades start to slide, and in some cases financial incentives.
Noyes represents a more intangible element to academic success: grit and perseverance.
“I feel like everybody to an extent kind of has a similar story,” Noyes said. “There's always a class or two that you struggle with.”
Getting back to school
After graduating from Rockford High School in 2015, Noyes used money he received from his graduation party to pay for tuition at Grand Rapids Community College.
Noyes described himself as a “very average student” in high school, and just “following the lead” of his friends who enrolled in college.
“I was just honestly not a very good student,” Noyes said. “I came to a crossroad where I was like, well I didn't even do that well in school to begin with, and I don't really have money (to continue in college).”
Noyes drifted in and out of the community college. He said he often started classes and dropped them; in classes he completed, he earned poor grades.
In January 2018, he received a letter saying he was academically suspended from the community college.
Ironically, it was being told he couldn’t go to college that made Noyes, for the first time, recognize how important education was.
“The thing that really motivated me was just how it felt not having college as an option,” Noyes said. “I didn't realize what college meant to me until it wasn't an option for me.”
He talked to counselors at GRCC, and was allowed to sign up again for classes in the fall of 2018.
Finding the motivation wasn’t always as easy as looking at the letter above the light switch for Noyes. He worked full-time, and sometimes had a second job, while also taking classes. He’d leave the house for his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. job at a warehouse. A few nights a week, he’d make the commute for in-person classes.
Noyes would only take three classes at a time, usually trying to make them in person, but occasionally adding an online class.
There were nights when he would get home from work, do math homework, and would feel discouraged knowing the next day he’d be assigned more.
He said his mother helped keep him focused on the big picture, but now he tries to do that for himself.
“When you're 18, you feel like you're grown and then you realize you're 18,” Noyes said. “But I would say in general, I think I have a better work ethic and I have an understanding now why I'm going to college.”
He continued, “I do genuinely believe that a lot of people struggle with college and have had to at least think about having to swallow that pill of dropping out or being suspended.”
The push for degrees
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set a goal of having 60 percent of Michigan adults with a certificate or college degree by 2030. The state has a long way to go to meet that goal. In 2020, just 49.1 percent of adults had a degree or post-high school certificate. The national average is 51.9 percent.
Helping students like Noyes across the finish line is key to meeting that goal.
A study done by Columbia University showed that students had higher success rates when they started their college career by taking 15 credits. Now, some Michigan schools are implementing different programs to try to help push students to the finish line.
In 2017, Michigan State University began its “Go Green Go 15” campaign, based on Columbia’s research. Students are encouraged to take 15 credits their first semester to keep up momentum and stay on track to graduate in four years.
The University of Michigan-Dearborn set up three-year plans for all offered academic programs to help students understand program expectations and plans.
At Michigan’s 28 community colleges, officials have bolstered efforts to help financially struggling students, with food banks on campus and mini-grants to pay for things like car repairs or a missing rent payment.
Noyes said he thinks graduating from college gives him a better chance of being able to retire one day.
“That’s the big goal,” he said.
His life hasn’t changed drastically since receiving his associate’s degree. He’s still working the same warehouse job, for the same pay. But Noyes has plans.
Now that he’s finally earned his associate’s degree, he wants to enroll at a four-year university. He doesn’t know what he wants to pursue a degree in yet, but he hopes to attend Davenport University or Grand Valley State University.
First, Noyes must retake a few classes at GRCC to qualify for the four-year schools, he said. It won’t be easy. But little in the past years has been. That didn’t stop him, and he doesn’t plan to stop now.
“I think it's important for people to know that they can set goals for themselves and find a way to reach them,” he said, “regardless if other people believe or not.”
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