Project Will Award College Degrees to Ex-Students

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A new project announced Thursday seeks to boost the number of college degrees awarded in the United States by finding people who earned enough credits for an associate’s degree but didn’t get one, and giving it to them.

Doing that nationwide could increase the number of associate’s degrees by 12 percent, says the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). But it’s not as easy as it might seem.

IHEP found that out last year through a pilot project called Win-Win, which it is now expanding to 35 community colleges and four-year institutions in Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. 

The new three-year, $1.3 million project, funded by the  Lumina Foundation for Education, will not only track down students who left college with enough credits for an associate’s, but will also seek those with less than nine credits to go and help them earn the degree.

Each school will get money and other help from IHEP to “spend significant time” auditing student records and locating the students, IHEP said. The work includes identifying eligible former students; matching school records with state records and other data; determining if there are “administrative barriers” for any of the ex-students to achieve degrees; and helping them obtain their degrees. Most of the schools will look for students who enrolled after 2001.

The pilot program in the 2009-10 school year awarded nearly 600 associate’s degrees at nine colleges and identified another 1,600 potential recipients who were just short of degree requirements, IHEP said.

A summary of the pilot states that students did not get degrees despite having enough credits because of such issues as having the wrong mix of classes to complete requirements for specific degrees, not having all of their class records from other schools transferred and applied, not completing non-academic requirements (such as physical education) and owing money to the institution for everything from tuition to a parking fine.

The project summary revealed several impediments to identifying and finding eligible students:

* Software for auditing degrees is “to put it kindly, immature. … It is often not populated with courses that no longer are offered and for which equivalents are not programmed, or it sets degree fulfillment criteria to those in force in 2009 when the student in question entered under different criteria in 2003.

“Most institutions had to turn to hand-and-eye review of transcript records for the degree audit, and this task is very time-consuming.”

* Changes in data systems at the schools. For example, “a software change in 2005 may isolate all students who entered before that date, hence exclude them from the universe under investigation.”

* Incompatibility between local and state data.

* Missing transcripts from other institutions that a student attended – a major issue when nearly half of the 9,500 students who passed through the first step of the project had transferred from other institutions. “The most frequent ‘hold’ on degrees lay in the fact that transcripts from other institutions attended by the student had never been received.”

* Tracking down the former students is “a major undertaking; institutions will be lucky to find half of them.”

Nevertheless, IHEP expects the new project to award about 1,000 associate’s degrees within one year. The nonprofit estimates that extending the program nationwide would increase the number of associates degrees awarded by 12 percent. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 750,000 associates degrees were awarded in 2007-08, with most coming from public institutions.