Rizan Hajji Mohamed bundled his pregnant wife into a car and drove from Los Angeles to Indianapolis because an online search identified only one program that grants high school diplomas to adults. The Syrian refugee arrived in a snowstorm, the first he’d ever seen.

But Mohamed, now 42, was no stranger to desperate treks across the miles. He fled Aleppo, Syria, because the Bashar al-Assad regime was persecuting Kurds like him who advocated for political freedom. He landed in Lebanon in 2007 and lived at a refugee camp, eking out a living in the industry he’d formerly owned a business in—embroidery design.

Warned that the intelligence agencies of Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria were trying to kill him for his human rights advocacy in Lebanon, he fled again. The United States granted him political asylum and flew Mohamed and his wife to Los Angeles in 2012.

Once they arrived in Indianapolis, he enrolled in a tuition-free Excel Center to get the high school degree he’d been denied in Syria. At the same time, he applied for dozens of jobs with no luck until he found a furniture company willing to hire him.

Rizan Hajji Mohamed stands in his green graduation robes.
Rizan Hajii Mohamed at his graduation from The Excel Center with a high school diploma, which he moved across the country to earn.
Rizan Hajji Mohamed shows off his employee badge.
Mohamed told his odyssey of a life story at The Excel Center headquarters in February.

“It was a nightmare—at the first place, I said the warehouse isn’t for me,” Mohamed said. “When a second furniture company sent me to the warehouse, I said yes.”

He worked 60 hours a week, learned English, and earned his diploma.

“The Excel Center was great—it changed my life,” he said. “When I applied to another company with my diploma, instead of the warehouse, they made me a salesman.”

He grabbed the opportunity, but he wasn’t done with his education. With a steady salary, he enrolled first at Ivy Tech Community College, then Indiana University Indianapolis. He graduated with a biology degree in May.

Betsy Delgado, chief mission and education officer at Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana, said Mohamed is a sterling example of why Goodwill opened The Excel Center in 2010. After starting with a single charter school in Indianapolis that year, the second-chance school for adults, filling a glaring need, has grown to 41 locations serving more than 12,000 students across seven states. The goal is to double in size by 2030.

Delgado said a key factor in the school’s fundraising and rapid expansion has been a partnership with Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, especially LEO’s rigorous analysis of how people with a diploma can get better jobs and pay than those with a GED alone.

A portrait of Betsy Delgado in front of The Excel Center in Indianapolis.
Betsy Delgado, chief mission and education officer at Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana, directs the rapid growth of The Excel Center.

“It makes us credible,” Delgado said. “We have our own evidence. But if you have a third—party institution that is savvy, that has economists that are looking at this work, and validating it and being super critical and neutral—it does give us validity with whomever we are talking to, whether it’s prospective students or legislators or funders. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Unique education

While many people think of Goodwill mainly as a second-hand clothing and household goods store, it has a long history of programs aiming to end generational poverty. The first Goodwill in Indiana was founded in 1930 in the basement of a Methodist church, modeled after a program established in Boston in 1902.

After more than seven decades of vocational training, job placement, and other poverty-related programs, Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana opened its first school in 2004, a mayor-sponsored public charter school that now has about 300 students. In 2010 Goodwill opened the first Excel Center location to provide adults the opportunity and support to earn a high school diploma.

Delgado, who had experience with adult learning, was brought in to re-engineer the program after its initial version was mostly online. She said Indiana offered the right conditions to start this program due to its friendly charter laws and the relationships that had been built with the mayor’s office and education community through its first high school.

There also wasn’t the law that many states have prohibiting people older than 21 from attending high schools, pushing that population toward a GED that past research showed doesn’t substantially improve their financial situation.

“Leadership here was really frustrated—they’d been trying different things with the population that we serve, and nothing really was effective,” Delgado said. “So they decided, what if we were to build an opportunity for adults to get their high school diploma? It was out of a desire to come up with something that created lifelong learners who could go to college or go into work or do both.”

Delgado led the creation of a unique model tailored specifically for adults. That meant overcoming the barriers that would keep them from school and offering them credentials needed for specific jobs, especially in health care. The Excel Center schools offer free transportation, child care, and life coaches. It provides certifications in fields ranging from dental assistant and nursing aide to pharmacy technician.

The need for such a program was profound. Nearly half a million working-age Hoosiers lack a high school diploma, with another 10 percent of students dropping out and adding to that number annually. States are willing to pay the cost, Delgado said, because they want to build their human capital. The average is about $10,000 per student. Graduates, on the other hand, are more likely to come off public assistance and pay taxes, so it’s a good investment.

“We’re a workforce development option, adding people to the pipeline,” she said. “We can infuse social cohesion. We are a solution to that. And this model, as Notre Dame has proven, does it equitably.”

In an Indianapolis classroom in late February, a dozen students were dividing polynomials in an algebra class. Teacher Phil DeJean walked through complex problems on a tablet that displayed his work on a large screen.

Phil Dejean, in a pink shirt, leans over a student to help her with her homework. Phil Dejean, in a pink shirt, walks down a hallway. A close up hands holding a pencil, writing on a sheet of paper.
Excel Center teacher Phil DeJean helps adult students divide polynomials in an algebra class in Indianapolis.

Student ages ranged widely from early 20s to at least 50s, plenty with hoodie sweatshirts and foreign accents. One woman explained that she’s not a student but her mother is in the class. DeJean said he’s taught at The Excel Center for eight years and likes the autonomy it provides.

“The content is the same, but the way it’s delivered is very different,” DeJean said. “The students want to be here, so you don’t have to convince them why it’s important. Working with adults, an underserved population, feels good. Meeting that need is fulfilling.”

Overcoming the odds

Katie Reigelsperger, 35, grew up all around central Indiana with parents she described as drug addicts and alcoholics.

She became pregnant at age 13 while in the eighth grade. Her father pulled her from school and told the authorities they would homeschool Katie, though they had no such intention. Reigelsperger raised her son, borrowed books from the library, and got her GED at age 16.

But she said all she could find were dead-end jobs. She fell further into a hole when she became pregnant again at 18. In 2013 she overheard people talking about a high school for adults while her kids were at a martial arts lesson. She enrolled the next day.

Katie Reigelsperger sits at a desk, wearing light blue scrubs.
Katie Reigelsperger overcame a challenging childhood to earn her high school diploma through The Excel Center.
Katie Reigelsperger sits at her computer wearing professional clothes.
Reigelsperger now owns her own small business, managing nine certification instructors teaching in 28 states.

With zero high school credits, it should have taken her longer than The Excel Center average of 1.5 years. Instead, she graduated in eight months with a diploma and certification as a pharmacy technician. Reigelsperger earned money during school by stocking groceries on weekends and babysitting other children on weekday evenings.

“I went in determined,” she said. “Both parents died of overdoses while I was there. I knew I wanted more for my kids.”

With grades at the top of the class, she landed a job at a CVS pharmacy. She soon moved up to a hospital in Noblesville, where she received training in chemotherapy and IV and advanced to pharmacy supervisor in 2016. Two years later, The Excel Center asked her to teach pharmacy tech.

“I told them I wasn’t a teacher, but they believed in me,” she said. “Two years later, I resigned my job and opened KLR Medical Certification Training School, my own small business.”

She now manages nine instructors teaching in 28 states, expanding her offerings to billing and coding, as well as veterinary tech and dental assistance. Some employees work in Excel Center locations, but others work in other programs. Her boys, now 20 and 16, have both worked for KLR too.

“I didn’t see the path my life was taking,” Reigelsperger said. “I share my story with students because it resonates with them. I say I know you can do this and I won’t let you give up. It’s different when it comes from a person who has been in that position.”

LEO partnership

Delgado said the partnership with LEO began when she did a webinar with a colleague who ran a nursing program bringing together nurses and first-time mothers, many of whom lacked a high school diploma. Someone from LEO watched that webinar and called her to learn more about The Excel Center. A research team from LEO went to Indianapolis to spend a day at headquarters.

“What’s unique about LEO is there is this comfort level they create with you, and a genuine curiosity and a real desire to do good,” Delgado said. “We happened to be a data-rich organization. All of a sudden, we had a partner that was highly influential, highly respected, that was willing to do the research for free if we accepted whatever the results were. There’s this mutual agreement that if we were going to scale this, we really needed to know that it worked and it worked well.”

Economics faculty members Patrick Turner and David Phillips, both LEO collaborators, conducted the study and published their preliminary findings in May 2021.

The gold standard in economics research is a randomized controlled trial, where two similar groups are formed using the equivalent of a coin flip. Any difference in outcomes between the group that receives the program and the control group can be attributed to the program.

Turner said that wasn’t possible in this case, but what The Excel Center had was a large pool of information on people who applied or enrolled but never graduated. So the researchers used that data to conduct a quasi-experimental research study, the next best thing to a randomized controlled trial.

A headshot of David Phillips in a dark green button down shirt.
David Phillips, research professor of economics, LEO
A headshot of Patrick Turner wear a light blue button down shirt under a navy sport coat.
Patrick Turner, associate research professor of economics, LEO

“We collected data on people with very similar trajectories in the labor market over the last five years and compared what then happened over the next five years,” he said. “Your earnings over the last five years tell you a lot about a person’s grit and their ability and these things that we can’t directly observe, so controlling for their history in the labor market gets this close to the apples-to-apples comparison you get with a randomized controlled trial.”

LEO researchers analyzed data for 9,465 people who had applied to The Excel Center between January 2013 and June 2015. Of these applicants, 1,371 enrolled and graduated, earning their diploma. More than 3,300 applicants never enrolled, and the final 4,756 applicants enrolled but did not complete the credits needed to graduate.

The study found that after a short-term dip in earnings when students cut back hours to focus on their studies, the five-year earnings trend takes off after graduation and grows quickly. The expected earnings gap between a high school graduate and a non-graduate is about 80 percent, and that number was cut in half.

“Five years after they applied, the graduates made nearly 40 percent more per quarter than you might have expected had they continued on the same trend that they had been before they showed up to the door,” Turner said. “That’s a pretty sizable increase.”

They also found a shift in the type of work graduates were doing: “We saw really big increases in working in the health sector, in the retail pharmacy sector, and in the education sector, and people moving away from working in restaurants and hotels and lower-wage sectors.”

Graduates are also more likely to go on to college or earn professional certificates. The changes translate to a wage increase of about $3,600 per year, a boost more than four times higher than simply passing the GED. Delgado said Excel Center leaders believe putting in the hours to earn a Core 40 diploma creates more value than studying for the GED.

“The evidence tells us that it’s more valuable because it’s not just taking a test,” she said. “The experience of high school is really important. The experience of working with your peers, the experience of being challenged and staying with it, that resiliency that it builds.”

Research impacts policy

LEO and The Excel Center worked together to turn the research into a two-page brief that both teams share with potential students, legislators, and funders. James Sullivan, co-founder of LEO, points to this work as research informing policy decisions.

“Our project with the Goodwill’s The Excel Center is an ideal example of how researchers and providers can work together to meaningfully make life better for the most vulnerable,” Sullivan said. “The evidence generated from the study has resulted in real policy change that has enabled The Excel Center to expand within Indiana and elsewhere, making upward mobility possible for those in greatest need.”

Turner said it’s important to LEO that its research informs policy, whether that’s for nonprofits, philanthropies, or government. He’s given presentations before Indiana government committees about the success of The Excel Center that have led to more funding statewide.

Rachel Fulcher Dawson, LEO’s senior associate director of policy and impact, said LEO has increased its policy work, building awareness of the value of independent evidence that shows a program works.

A headshot of Rachel Fulcher Dawson wearing a black blazer.
Rachel Fulcher Dawson, senior associate director of policy and impact, LEO

“There’s a lot of great work being done in the nonprofit space to help people move out of poverty, but we don’t know a lot about the cost effectiveness of these programs,” she said. “This is LEO coming in and saying, ‘These are the kinds of outcomes we’re seeing for them.’ To scale a program like this, you need funding. Private foundations and individual donors are an initial way of funding things, but states have sustainable public dollars to serve these students.”

Fulcher Dawson and Heather Reynolds, LEO’s managing director, testified to the Arizona legislature about the importance of evidence-backed programs and how The Excel Center fits that bill. Arizona not only changed its law to allow state money to pay for high school education for adults, it invested $12 million to open the first schools in the Phoenix area, serving about 300 students.

Turner said the rapid expansion of The Excel Center, headquartered in Indianapolis but now spreading nationwide, has led to more research collaboration. One study is evaluating how graduating from high school as an adult can lower the likelihood that a person will become involved in the criminal justice system. LEO is testing interventions to better support students with legal records.

Another study is looking at one of The Excel Center’s biggest weaknesses, which is a low completion rate. While the graduation rate is equivalent to that of community college, Delgado is not satisfied with a completion rate of below 30 percent. More than half of applicants never start.

“There’s a big gap in their recruitment funnel,” Turner said. “They’re really thinking about how they can help get people through the door and start the program, and then persist to graduation. So we’re testing some behavioral interventions to try to increase enrollment of their potential applicants to widen the net of students who are served by the program.”

Changing lives

Connie De Castro, who teaches science and math at an Indianapolis Excel Center, said the program is tailored to each individual. Students who couldn’t overcome barriers when they were young now face even more as adults, from child rearing to changing work schedules. While the rate of absence can be very high, the classes are structured to account for that reality while still holding students accountable.

“There are five eight-week terms, and I teach in modules,” she said. “If a student can’t fulfill the requirements by the end of a term, they don’t fail. They just start again where they left off in the next eight-week term. They still have to fulfill the requirements.”

Connie De Castro sits at a table talking to someone off camera. Connie De Castro stands at a podium using her laptop to display a chart on a screen.
Connie De Castro, who teaches math and science at an Indianapolis Excel Center, said the adult diploma program is tailored to each individual student.

That kind of flexibility is what makes the model attractive, said De Castro, a Philippines native. Many immigrant students were professionals in their home country but need to start over here. She often sees a woman start classes, and then bring her husband. “It’s inspiring—I even have a mother-son combo,” she said.

For Mohamed, the Syrian Kurd who fled persecution and drove across the country to get an education, The Excel Center feels like home. He turned down a promotion to furniture sales manager so that he could continue his education. Needing flexibility to finish his classes, he chose instead to become an Excel Center teacher and drive for Uber.

He plans to go to dental school when he finishes college in May. After his wife suffered through two years of intense pain before they could afford a dental procedure, he plans to dedicate one day each week to performing free dental work for those who can’t afford it.

“I always say, ‘A dictator government can take away your life, but not your dream,’” Mohamed said. “People here have helped me. The Excel Center was game changing. Now I can get my degree and pay it forward.”

Join the Notre Dame Stories Mailing List

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and never miss out on the latest features.