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‘Degrees When Due’ Initiative Supports Equitable Degree Attainment

With this week’s launch of Degrees When Due, a new three-year initiative by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), nearly 30,000 adult learners and college “stop-outs” are expected to complete their degrees within a year.

An inaugural Degrees When Due cohort of more than 25 postsecondary institutions from eight states will partner with IHEP to implement research-based strategies to close educational attainment gaps and push students to finish their degrees. The initiative will advance what IHEP coins as “degree reclamation” for adult learners and other students who have some college experience, but no degree.

Dr. Michelle Asha CooperDr. Michelle Asha Cooper

“When a college student becomes a graduate, she moves closer to realizing her full potential. But when she pauses her studies, even after earning enough credits, and never receives her degree, that potential becomes much harder to realize,” said IHEP president Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, in an official launch announcement. “Through Degrees When Due, we’re helping schools build the capacity to help more low-income students and students of color cross the degree-completion finish line.”

Beginning this fall, faculty from participating campuses in California, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington will start the initiative with a 9-month online learning experience that entails guided lessons and live coaching from experts working on and employing successful degree reclamation strategies for students.

Institutions will learn how to identify and reengage stopped-out students and students close to completion, how to provide customized supports for student degree completion and how to award associate degrees to students who have already earned enough credits at one or more institutions, IHEP officials said.

Research shows that nearly four million students have completed credits that could count towards an associate degree, according to IHEP. One in five students enrolled in higher education stop out each year due to financial challenges, family, work or other responsibilities.

IHEP’s latest initiative builds off of its Project Win-Win and the national Credit When It’s Due (CWID) initiative on “reverse transfer” programs. As the initiative expands, the organization plans to welcome campuses in 32 states to Degrees When Due within three years and ultimately bring degrees to 500,000 more students as institutions enhance their reengagement and degree completion efforts.

“This is a really big effort,” Cooper said.

Several higher education and philanthropic organizations have committed to supporting IHEP’s initiative to ensure that states and institutions can participate at no cost, officials noted. The Lumina Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates and ECMC Foundation invested $5.8 million to support the effort.

Many of the Degrees When Due campus representatives were in Washington, D.C. for a convening of IHEP’s Talent Hubs Community of Practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Several representatives mentioned that their Degrees When Due commitment builds on existing institutional efforts that seek to reengage with students around degree completion.

Dr. Kathleen Mahar, dean of institutional effectiveness at Shasta College, said that the initiative will help the college better encourage students and adults in the surrounding rural area to complete their degrees.

In keynote remarks at the convening, Sarah Ancel, senior vice president of Complete College America, shed light on the impact of degree completion initiatives, particularly for adult learners.

What higher education offers adults today “is a very bad tradeoff,” Ancel said, adding that current educational paths are often more expensive, and sometimes, do not lead to graduation.

Her work with the Complete College Alliance advocates for building smarter and accelerated schedules for adult learners, honoring the wealth of knowledge that an adult learner brings with them and providing a supportive coach to students.

Ancel added that training faculty to build quality relationships with students and giving them knowledge about resources they can share with students can make a difference for adult learners coming back to complete their degrees.

On the point of “proactive reengagement” to college stop-outs and adult learners, Ancel said institutions should be saying, “‘We’ve changed the way we are doing business so we can serve you better.’”

“The work we need to do is ask students if they are ready to give us another chance,” she said.

IHEP will announce Degrees When Due’s second cohort of states and institutions in summer 2019. A report examining the initial outcomes and impact of degree reclamation strategies will be available in fall 2019.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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