To Pump Up Degree Counts, Colleges Invite Dropouts Back

But the effort can be an administrative nightmare, and many students aren't even interested

Marilyn S. Jones, a vice president at Lakeland Community College, has been able to contact only 45 of the 128 former students of her college who are eligible for degrees through Project Win-Win, an effort to help students whose academic work is nearly complete.
October 24, 2010

One idea for improving the nation's college-completion rate sounds simple enough: Find former students who have already earned enough credits to receive a degree, or need just a few more classes to do so, and encourage them to graduate.

Advocates of a newly expanded program, Project Win-Win, estimate that colleges could award thousands of diplomas that way, propelling the United States closer to President Obama's aim of being atop the world again by 2020 in the proportion of residents with postsecondary degrees or certificates. One in five Americans ages 25 to 64 have attended college but not earned degrees, and getting some of those 37 million people back into, and through, college will be necessary if the nation is to have any chance of meeting the president's goal.

But the reality of identifying, tracking down, and persuading former students to return is complicated, not to mention time-consuming.

One of the first responses from many former students reached by college officials involved with Project Win-Win is whether the invitation to re-enroll is a joke. Some are befuddled, having thought for years that they had already earned a degree. Others are indifferent, assuming that the communication will lead to a plea for money.

If colleges can get their dropouts to the next step of the conversation, of entertaining the idea of returning, there are still challenges. Sometimes cost is a worry; sometimes curricula have been updated so that certain credits no longer count toward a particular degree.

The project, a joint program of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, State Higher Education Executive Officers, and the Lumina Foundation for Education, began last year with nine colleges and in August was expanded to 35 community colleges and four-year institutions in six states. Lumina has set a goal similar to the president's, of having 60 percent of adults with college degrees or credentials by 2025.

Putting more degrees into people's hands certainly contributes to the tally of Americans who hold them, although it does little to increase the nation's educational capital. The project's leaders, though, say their aim for the program is narrower: to capture the small portion of the population that could easily be counted among degree holders but is not.

The three-year, $1.3-million project joins a number of endeavors with similar goals, including "academic forgiveness" programs at Camden County College, in New Jersey, and Bucks County Community College, in Pennsylvania, that allow former students to reset their grade-point averages and start over.

These programs are finding some success, offering stories of individuals who have eagerly embraced the opportunity to receive a retroactively awarded degree.

McNeese State University, in Louisiana, points to a student who dropped out of college two years ago, when she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. She had planned to earn a four-year degree in teaching but was recently awarded an associate degree because she had enough credits for that.

College officials said the student wept after learning that she would receive a college degree, an achievement she thought was no longer possible.

Hard Work

In seven months, colleges participating in the Project Win-Win pilot have so far awarded nearly 600 associate degrees and identified almost 1,600 potential degree recipients. Over all, about 14,000 associate degrees are expected to be awarded through the pilot project and the expanded program, which are designed to reach students who were enrolled in 2003 or later.

Project officials acknowledge the challenges that participating institutions face. In fact, the Institute for Higher Education Policy is sponsoring a conference next month to help colleges navigate hurdles. Despite the labor-intensive work involved, Michelle Asha Cooper, the institute's president, says the project is worthwhile.

"We have this national goal related to college completion," she says. "It's important that we help students get to the finish line."

The project's successes are hard won, requiring diligence, persistence, and persuasion, and the complications of the effort suggest that the promise of these programs to bring widespread change is limited.

Success requires scouring databases, and in some cases adjusting them, to locate students who fit the criteria for graduation. Countless hours are spent tracking down students via letters, phone calls, and e-mails. The work is a drain on college staff members, who usually juggle those duties with their regular workloads. And it is all occurring at a precarious time, especially for community colleges, where surging enrollment collides with dwindling resources.

Sometimes the hard work leads nowhere. A year after her institution joined Project Win-Win, Marilyn S. Jones, vice president for learning support and vice provost at Lakeland Community College, in Ohio, is no closer to putting a diploma in the hands of a former college student.

Of the 128 former students who met the criteria for graduation through the project, Ms. Jones reached only 45. None were interested in receiving an associate degree. Most had left the college to pursue a bachelor's degree instead.

Because it takes an average of six years to complete a four-year degree, Ms. Jones tried to persuade students to get an associate degree—which is also a credential of value— while they continued to pursue a bachelor's degree. She said students could use an associate degree as leverage to obtain a higher salary or a better job. In 2009, full-time workers with some college experience but no degree earned an average of $36,300 per year, compared with $39,500 for those with an associate degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the end, the students just deemed it unnecessary, Ms. Jones said.

"It was very disappointing, but we are going to continue with the effort," she says. "Hopefully we'll get different results next time."

Tracking Down Students

To participate in Project Win-Win, Southeastern Louisiana University had to make changes in its degree audit system so that it could recognize former students who had accrued enough credits to earn associate degrees. (The university awards both two- and four-year degrees.) Before the change, the system recognized only students actively enrolled.

"Nothing is straightforward and easy," says Lori Fairburn, the enrollment-services director. "There are a lot of people involved in this process and a lot of questions that need to be answered before moving forward."

But Southeastern Louisiana's efforts seem to be gaining results. A few weeks ago, the university sent 270 letters to former students who had enough credits to earn associate degrees. The university had received 61 responses as of early last week, with the figure changing daily. All of the students who responded indicated that they wanted the degrees, university officials said.

At Delgado Community College, in Louisiana, one of the original colleges in the pilot program, officials are still compiling a list of eligible students. Deborah Lea, vice chancellor for learning and student development, says the college is methodically reviewing student transcripts and matching them with curriculum requirements. That is being done manually, she said.

The work, which requires a lot of hours, is being done by staff members who continue to handle their day-to-day responsibilities on top of this special project.

When Northwestern State University, in Louisiana, sent out 768 letters to eligible former students who had accrued enough credits to earn an associate degree, or only needed to take a few courses to do so, a staggering 300 letters came back as undeliverable.

Undeterred, the university began e-mailing those students, and when that didn't work, college officials started making phone calls. They cast a wider net by promoting the program on the university's Facebook page.

Soon local newspaper and television stations picked up the story, and former students whom the university had had trouble locating began calling to find out how they could earn their degrees.

For some students, the letter or phone call is a surprise, because they thought they had already graduated. Instead they learn that because they had neglected to fill out some paperwork, they are not college graduates after all. Most of these former students fill out the paperwork so they can finally get their degrees, and some even don caps and gowns and attend graduation. Others just shrug off the idea as unnecessary.

Still others are suspicious. That describes the reaction of Don Schleisman, 43, when he received a letter in 2003 from the University of New Mexico inviting him to return and finish his bachelor's degree. The university is not associated with Project Win-Win. When it started its graduation effort in 1997, it was one of the earliest universities to do so.

Mr. Schleisman had attended New Mexico on and off for about a decade, starting in 1985, before finally dropping out completely to pursue a music-industry career that never really took off. He ended up waiting tables and bartending.

"I thought the school wanted my money," he says with a laugh. "I thought it was too good to be true."

After realizing that the offer was legitimate, he re-enrolled. Two semesters later, in 2004, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics. He now works as a policy analyst for the New Mexico Department of Education.

Another concern of participants in the programs that seek to graduate former students is ensuring the integrity of the associate degree. That's why some institutions are in no hurry to award degrees. They want to make sure that only deserving students are applying and receiving degrees.

To preserve program integrity, colleges participating in Project Win-Win have established several criteria. Besides excluding people who were enrolled before 2003, a grade-point average of at least 2.0 is required to obtain a degree.

Ms. Fairburn remembers one call from the daughter of a woman who attended Southeastern Louisiana back in the 1930s. She called inquiring if her mother could receive her associate degree. The university declined the request because the mother's coursework would not match the current curriculum requirements.

"Those sentimental calls are hard," said Ms. Fairburn. "We want to maintain the integrity of the degree but at the same time serve the students. It's a balance."

Making It Work

For over a decade, the University of New Mexico has worked methodically to remove barriers that stand in the way of adults who might otherwise return to college to complete their degrees. Its efforts illustrate that obstacles facing former students and their colleges can be surmounted, but that it takes a campus working together to make it happen.

The university's Graduation Project identifies former students who had senior standing and were within a few courses of completing a bachelor's degree. They also needed to have left with at least a 2.0 grade-point average to participate.

To date, 2,816 students have come back to the university. Of those, about 2,000 have already graduated, a 71-percent graduation rate. That compares with New Mexico's six-year graduation rate of 43 percent.

The project's success has a lot to do with its "cut through the red tape" approach, according to university officials. "We basically act as the middleman," said Vanessa Shields, the program's manager.

Former students reapply using a special, short application form, and tuition assistance is offered to those with financial need. The university provides students with reports that outline the classes they need to graduate and works with them when their transcripts don't match well with current degree requirements.

Because many students attended college long ago, the courses they took may no longer count toward a degree. In those cases, Ms. Shields says, her office encourages students to petition the academic department for a waiver. A lot of students are surprised to learn that they can do that, she says, and most who apply are granted exceptions.

Beth Pinkerton, 49, saw how effective the project's staff members can be. Eager to return to college after leaving almost three decades ago, Ms. Pinkerton immediately faced a hurdle. She had contacted the university, seeking to re-enroll, after learning about the Graduation Project on the university's Web site. But according to New Mexico's computer system, she had not earned the 98 credits required to participate, even though her paper transcript showed that she had more than 100 credits.

It turned out that her credits were so old that they weren't showing up in the database. After the project's staff members got involved, the registrar's office eventually located its own paper copy of Ms. Pinkerton's college transcript, showing that she did indeed meet the eligibility requirement.

Then, when Ms. Pinkerton had difficulty enrolling in upper-level courses, which had filled up by the time she tried to register, staff members intervened again by making a call to the registrar's office and getting her a spot in the classes. After starting college in the 1980s, Ms. Pinkerton finally received her bachelor's degree, in psychology, in May.

"Just knowing that I had someone to go to and who would be responsive to my request really made all the difference in getting my degree," says Ms. Pinkerton, who is a public-health program manager in the New Mexico Department of Health.

When the university began its graduation effort, it seemed to have underestimated the scope of the task ahead. When Ms. Shields started her job, she was told that it would be a short-term project. Administrators figured that the university would eventually catch up with all the students who had dropped out, and the program would naturally dwindle.

What they didn't count on was the volume of new dropouts being added to the database each year. Last year Ms. Shields mailed out letters to about 200 newly dropped out students.

"It's an endless cycle," she says. "But as long as they come back and finish, that is what's important."