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Colleges Get Lessons in Helping People Finish Their Degrees

A second cohort of colleges is undergoing an online program to learn how to help their students complete long-unfinished degrees. "Degrees When Due," an initiative run by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), includes a nine-month online learning experience with guided lessons in "implementing degree-reclamation strategies" and live coaching from expert practitioners. IHEP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy organization focused on promoting postsecondary access and success for all students.

The program started in 2018 as a three-year project to give colleges and universities research-informed strategies to identify and successfully reengage "stopped-out students" in their communities. The newest cohort includes 104 institutions in 18 states, adding up to 150 schools in total in 20 states.

Among those participating are Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota, Shasta College in California and Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan.

"As an open-door institution, we serve students from all social groups with varying levels of academic preparation. This means we have a higher proportion of students with fewer resources to handle unexpected life circumstances," said Nora Morris, dean of institutional effectiveness at Anoka-Ramsey CC, in a statement. "Not all students are in a situation to complete a degree from start to finish with no breaks. Reaching out to students and reminding them that they can return and complete a degree is important." Minnesota has about 60,653 "potential completers," according to IHEP.

For Shasta College, one in three adults in the region have some college but no degree, according to Kate Mahar, dean of institutional effectiveness. Across the state, there are an estimated 530,263 potential completers. "After exploring the data and learning from the transcript evaluations of our near completers, we discovered multiple 'pain points' in our requirements and processes that have prohibited students from graduating with a degree," said Mahar. "In addition to Degrees When Due's direct benefit for past students, we are also excited about our ability to move forward and change some of our institutional systems to prevent these kinds of situations from happening to our current and future students."

"Most of these students have no idea how close they are to earning their credential — and once they have that, additional doors to employment and other educational opportunities open to them," added Valerie Butterfield, registrar at Grand Rapids CC. "For the institution, it's a great opportunity to re-evaluate our policies and practices and to learn why students stop attending when they are so close and how we can better support our students to complete their degree." Michigan is estimated to have 123,758 potential completers.

IHEP said it expected to publish initial findings in 2020 covering the impact of degree reclamation strategies, including increased degree attainment rates and related outcomes on students' livelihoods.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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