Another Chance Is Offered to Those Who Fell Just Short of a Degree

August 25, 2010

Students who left college before graduating may get a second chance at earning their degree.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Lumina Foundation for Education announced a joint program on Wednesday to find formerly enrolled college students whose academic records qualify them to be awarded associate degrees retroactively.

The three-year, $1.3-million effort, called Project Win-Win, also plans to identify former students who fell just short of an associate degree, by nine or fewer credits, and re-enroll them to earn a degree.

The project has the potential to be a real game-changer in terms of the nation's efforts to achieve the college-completion goals set out by President Obama, the nation's governors, and Lumina. The president has repeatedly called for more Americans to earn college certificates or degrees so that by 2020 the United States can once again have the world's highest proportion of college graduates.

"This is an enormous down-payment," said Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the institute. "These students are comparatively easy candidates for credentials."

The institute will coordinate and assist 35 community colleges and four-year universities that offer associate degrees in six states that are participating in the program: Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Institutions will audit their student records, looking for former students who are eligible for degrees and those who are close to completion.

Expansion of Pilot Program

The project announced Wednesday expands a pilot program that began last academic year in partnership with Education Trust and included nine institutions in three states. The original, seven-month project awarded nearly 600 associate degrees and identified almost 1,600 students who were considered potential degree recipients.

The pilot institutions will continue with the expanded project for one more year. By the end, they are expected to have awarded 1,000 associate degrees and have at least 2,000 students in line to complete their degrees.

"Extending the estimates across all of U.S. higher education would mean, at a minimum, a 12-percent increase in the number of associate degrees awarded," Mr. Adelman said.

He added that the total number of new associate degrees conferred could reach 250,000 if four-year colleges that don't award associate degrees, but could identify students who transfer in without the degree, were added to the mix.

At McNeese State University, 17 associate degrees have been awarded to students since the institution began participating in the pilot program. Six more students will receive their degrees during winter commencement.

The university, in Louisiana, found 450 students qualified to earn an associate degree after conducting an audit of student records. Of those, 150 met the requirement to immediately earn the degree while the other 300 need to take a few more courses. The university plans to encourage the "near completers" to re-enroll at the university and finish enough courses to earn the associate degree.

Stephanie Tarver, dean of enrollment management at McNeese, said the majority of students eligible for the associate degree had enrolled at the university with the intent of earning a bachelor's degree. Life sometimes just got in the way for some students, she said.

Ms. Tarver said they found one student who had wanted to become a teacher but left the university after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly know as Lou Gehrig's disease. The student received her degree this spring.

"There were a lot of tears on the other side of the phone," Ms. Tarver said.

Help for People Near Completion

Lumina, which financed the pilot program and is now paying for the expanded project, got involved in the effort because foundation officials were intrigued with the idea of helping the near-completer population, said Holly Zanville, a program director at the foundation.

She said a lot of students don't know even know they have enough credits for at least an associate degree.

While considered successful, the pilot program also identified weakness in the higher-education system, the institute found. Those include incompatibility between local and state data, insufficient degree-audit software, and missing transcripts from other institutions.

Ms. Zanville said that information should be used to develop policies that could be put in place to overcome the barriers.