Project Win-Win Seeks to Retroactively Award College Degrees

Aug 26, 2010

The Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) have partnered to launch Project Win-Win, an effort to increase degree completion in the U.S. The program is linking up 35 2- and 4-year colleges with former students who have earned enough credits for an associate's, but were never awarded their degree, as well as those who are nine or fewer credits award from their degree.

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Uniting Former Students With Their Degrees

Over the 2009-2010 school year, IHEP and SHEEO, funded by the Lumina foundation, conducted a pilot program under the sponsorship of the Education Trust. With the assistance of these organizations, nine pilot schools - six community colleges and three 4-year colleges that grant associate's degrees - tracked down former students who had completed enough credits but are no longer enrolled anywhere and for various reasons never received their degrees. Although they found that finding the students and awarding them degrees was 'not a simple nor an instant matter,' the nine institutions were ultimately able to award almost 600 associate's degrees in seven months. They also tracked down nearly 1,600 students who were within nine credits of finishing their degrees ('potential degree recipients') in the hopes of guiding them through their last few classes.

Based on these numbers, IHEP predicts that if the same endeavor was undertaken at associate's degree-granting institutions across the U.S., there could be a remarkable 12% increase in the number of 2-year degrees awarded. If the effort is expanded to include 4-year colleges targeting students who can transfer in without the associate's degree, the number of new associate's degrees conferred could reach 250,000. In pursuit of that goal, IHEP, the SHEEO and the Lumina Foundation have launched Project Win-Win.

The 3-year, $1.3 million project will expand the original pilot to 35 community and 4-year colleges in Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The pilot schools will also continue the program for one year, at which point IHEP expects to see 1,000 students with degrees and 2,000 'potential degree recipients' on track for earning their associate's degrees in a timely fashion.

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The (Mostly) Low-Hanging Fruit

'Project Win-Win' - the title says it all. Degree recipients win because somebody will track them down and practically hand them their degree, along with all the potential career benefits that come with that piece of paper. And the country wins because it will bring us that much closer to reaching President Obama's goal of having the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at IHEP, notes that 'This is a huge down payment. These students are comparatively easy candidates for credentials.'

While this may seem like an easy way to elevate national degree completion rates - most of these individuals won't even have to complete any more coursework - participants in the pilot learned that it's not as easy as it sounds. Tracking down and making contact with former students turned out to be a significant logistical challenge. Stephanie Tarver, dean of enrollment management at McNeese State University, a pilot institution, commented to Inside Higher Ed that 'We were kind of bumbling around in the dark a bit. When you pull data, it doesn't always match up like you thought it would. You have to have a lot of staff to dedicate to a project like this to keep it going.'

Even after they made contact with former students, many were skeptical of the program. Tarver reports that a lot of people's response to being called out of the blue and offered a degree was, 'Where's the catch?' Ultimately, McNeese awarded 17 degrees out of 150 former students they'd identified who met degree requirements, and six more will receive their degrees at this winter's commencement ceremony. The school was also able to track down 300 'potential degree candidates' and is currently helping them reach the finish line.

Many of the students the pilot schools did track down were unaware that they qualified for a degree. For example, some had originally enrolled with the intention of earning a bachelor's degree and dropped out due to illness or other life circumstances. Most never realized they'd already earned enough credits for an associate's. For these students, the call was a blessing. 'There were a lot of tears on the other side of the phone,' Tarver reported.


The pilot program also exposed a number of bureaucratic problems in the higher education system. For example, state and local data is often incompatible, current degree-audit software is insufficient and many institutions are missing transcripts. Nearly half of the 9,500 students who were identified as potential candidates had transferred into their institutions. When previous colleges failed to produce their transcripts, schools were forced to place a 'hold' on these students' degrees.

The project's organizers hope that these experiences will inspire policymakers to address these problems. The SHEEO plans to bring the lesson they learned back to their members in the, highlighting the policies and regulations that need to be reexamined in order to improve data collection and the flow of information.

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