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A Playbook to Help Colleges Bring Students Across the Degree Finish Line


Picture1 1200x1251Institute for Higher Education PolicyAt least 36 million Americans have attended college but needed to stop before they earned a degree. In response as the pandemic continues to make completing a degree harder for many, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, published a playbook to help institutions support these millions of people with some credits but no degree.

“Higher education should be a pathway to a better living and life for all students, regardless of their background,” said Jennifer Pocai, a research and programs manager at IHEP and one of the playbook’s authors. “The gap in students with some credits but no degree falls along racial and socioeconomic lines, and the pandemic has only worsened it. It is even more urgent for colleges to focus on degree reclamation now.”

Pocai pointed out that institutions can use The Degree Reclamation Playbook step-by-step or, for colleges already doing this work, focus on a strategic assessment section. The guidelines center on two ways campus practitioners can bring individuals across that degree finish line: reverse transfer and adult reengagement.

Reverse transfer helps students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution apply the credits that they earned at a four-year institution back to the credits that they already had from their two-year institution to then receive an associate’s degree. Adult reengagement strategies in turn focus on helping colleges find and reconnect with students who stopped out of college without finishing their degree. Such strategies include reaching out to students close to completion to support their reenrollment. 

Dr. Jason Taylor, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah, has researched reverse transfer. He noted that most incoming transfer students from a community college to a four-year institution have a lot of credit with no associate’s degree. Taylor added that equity is at stake.

“The research on transfer is so clear about racial equity gaps,” said Taylor. “Reverse transfer is an equity issue because we know that students of color and low-income students are less likely to get an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree when they start their program.”

According to a 2020 report from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research organization focused on educational data reporting and exchange, Black and Hispanic students stop out at higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts at public two-year institutions as well as public four-year institutions. The IHEP playbook cited such figures as well.

Taylor noted that reverse transfer helps both two-year and four-year institutions. At the two-year level, it bolsters associate’s degree completion rates. But his research has also found that transfer students are more likely to finish their bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution if they are awarded an associate’s degree along the way. That associate's helps students build momentum.

“Reverse transfer is a win-win-win,” said Taylor. “The question is not why do it — but why not do it? If we know that students have earned the credits for degrees, why aren’t we conferring them?”

A similar question has been the focus of Dr. Nora Morris, director of research and evaluation at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota. She has seen more students stop out in the pandemic and emphasized the need for adult reengagement, the second-degree reclamation strategy in IHEP’s playbook.

“Particularly at two-year community colleges, we have an issue with hanging on to students and getting them across the line,” said Morris. “Students choose us because we’re convenient, close to home, and they can take classes while they’re working and caring for their families. During the pandemic, that equation has changed.”

Morris noted, for example, that many students with children have stopped working towards their degrees to focus on their families due to childcare issues with remote schooling. 

“The number of students choosing to take a pause is growing, and then the pause turns into two years, then three years,” she said. “So, it is particularly important to help students return when they can.”

IHEP’s playbook spotlighted Morris’s team at Anoka-Ramsey for trying to better reengage with stopped-out students. After a recent degree audit, Morris found a number of people who had enough credits to earn a degree but never applied to graduate because they did not realize that they could. 

“We realized that we need to better communicate with students about that process of applying for graduation,” said Morris. “We also now do regular degree audits through our system for any students with 60 credits, or enough for a two-year degree.”

Of the playbook’s ten steps for degree reclamation implementation, IHEP included developing a process for degree auditing as the sixth step. That way institutions can, as Anoka-Ramsey did, identify students who may already have taken enough classes to cross that degree finish line.

To Morris, one of the most critical parts of her team's degree reclamation work has been “what we refer to here as granting students grace — understanding that students are trying their best and that our job is to meet them where they are.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].

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