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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

October 30, 2013 at 3:47 PM

Project Win-Win helps students gain college degrees retroactively

Marty Brown, executive director, State Board for Community and Technical Colleges

Marty Brown, executive director, State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Using data-mining techniques and a close read of college transcripts, a national research organization has helped more than 4,500 students receive associate’s degrees retroactively — students who had enough credits to earn an associate’s degree, but never got one.

Washington did not participate in the project, which started in 2009. But state education leaders “are aware of the project and think it has some lessons for us,” said Marty Brown, the executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, by email.

The study highlights red tape and institutional policies that often stand in the way of a student earning a diploma, said Clifford Adelman, a senior researcher for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Project Win-Win recruited 61 associate’s degree-granting institutions in nine states (Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin).

The schools went on a data-hunt to find former students who never received a degree, who were no longer enrolled anywhere, and who were within striking distance of qualifying for a degree.

The program found 130,000 students who might qualify. After college administrators did a line-by-line look at the transcripts of 42,000 students, they found more than 6,700 who were eligible for a degree, but never received one, Adelman said.

Of those students, 4,500 have received their degrees so far. Another 20,000 students need to earn fewer than 12 credits to complete their degree.

Adelman said the degree audit is “really the center of this thing.” It’s a close read of a student’s transcript, and includes looking for courses that students completed at other institutions, as well.

You might think that a student who receives the required number of credits for a degree would automatically receive that degree. But in many schools, students have to fill out an application and pay a small fee before getting a diploma. They may have enough credits for one type of degree, but not another. These are stumbling blocks for many students, Adelman said.

Students also mistakenly believe that they’re no longer eligible for financial aid if they complete an associate’s degree, but that’s not true; the only thing that stops financial aid is earning a bachelor’s degree, Adelman said.

Students also worry that if they leave school and accept their associate’s degree, they’ll have to start paying back their loans. To that, Adelman said: “If you’re out of school, you should be paying back loans.”

Adelman also thinks some students don’t assign enough value to an associate’s degree. To him, such degrees signal to an employer that a student persisted in a program and completed it,  and that’s a valuable point to include on a resume.

Brown, of Washington, said the SBCTC is working with the Washington Student Achievement Council and the state’s Education Research and Data Center to see what data is available and what the next steps might be.

“We know there is a huge portion of the population in our state (approaching 30 percent in the 25-44 year old group alone) that have some college and no degree or certificate,” Brown wrote. “We all want to reach that population and try to help them get degrees or certificates to give them a better chance to improve their job situation whenever possible.”

Comments | Topics: Community colleges, higher ed, Institute for Higher Education Policy

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