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What's the Value in Helping Students 'Reclaim' Their Degrees?

September 24, 2018

By Goldie Blumenstyk, The Chronicle of Higher Education

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academe. For more than two years, I’ve been curating the weekly Re:Learning newsletter. Now I’m using it to share my observations on the people and ideas reshaping the higher-education landscape. Subscribe here. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:

What’s the value in helping students “reclaim” their degrees?

Every so often, states or organizations develop “reverse transfer” campaigns. They’re typically designed to help students who have earned enough credits to qualify for an associate degree but never got the sheepskin — say, a community-college student who transferred in an attempt to earn a bachelor’s. Sometimes the campaigns also encourage adults who are a few credits shy of a degree but are already in the work force to return to complete those last courses.

I’ve often wondered, who really benefits? Is this just something that helps colleges improve their graduation-rate stats? Or do the programs really pay off for students — financially, emotionally, or in some other way?

The college stop-out rate (a term many policy advocates prefer to the more doom-laden “dropout”) is disproportionately higher for low-income and minority students. So these questions are more than academic, especially for those of us who care about racial and socioeconomic equity in higher education.

It looks like we won’t have to wonder for too much longer. This week the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) will announce a major campaign to help hundreds of colleges in 32 states develop expertise in what it calls “degree reclamation.”

A big piece of this project will go toward research on whether reverse transfer benefits students — and if so, how.

Over the next three years, IHEP’s $5.8-million, philanthropy-backed “Degrees When Due” campaign will train college officials — teams of registrars, marketers, institutional researchers, advisers, and IT experts — in the skills they’ll need to identify and counsel students eligible to earn a reclaimed degree or return for their final credits. The funders are the Lumina, Kresge, and ECMC Foundations and Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates. (And yes, for those keeping track, Kresge and Great Lakes are also two of the funders on the Excelencia in Education project to help colleges attract more Hispanic adults, which I wrote about last week.)

Reverse transfer has become a high priority for several states, including New Jersey, where the legislature recently voted to make it a statewide policy. Degrees When Due training will kick off in October with college officials from eight states; teams from additional states will join in successive years.

Of the estimated 36 million adults with some college and no degree, about four million have earned enough credits for an associate degree. IHEP says it hopes the project will eventually result in about 500,000 new graduates.

But Julie Ajinkya, the organization’s vice president for applied research, told me she genuinely believes that’s a conservative estimate. The estimate was based on results from two prior reverse-transfer campaigns — IHEP’s 2009 “Project Win-Win” and a later “Credit When It’s Due” project. Since then, colleges have learned new ways to engage returning students. For example, she says, colleges today are better equipped to use prior-learning assessment to help students with those last few credits, and they understand the need for employer-engagement strategies. More colleges are starting to realize, she says, that if they want students to come back, even for just a few courses, “there has to be something different for them.” (Exhibit A, she says: the University of Memphis’s drive to bring adult students back into the fold, which I wrote about a few months ago.)

But to what end? Does that degree really make a difference in their lives? To an extent, yes. At least that’s what the evidence suggests to Jason L. Taylor. Taylor is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah who helped conduct research on the impact of earlier reverse-transfer projects. He’ll oversee the studies based on student data collected in the new campaign.

As his previous research on students from Hawaii, Minnesota, and Ohio showed, retention and bachelor-degree-completion rates were (depending on the state) 5 to 18 percent higher for students who had received their associate degree via reverse transfer than for those who didn’t. But the research doesn’t get at the underlying reasons. As the social scientists would say, he found correlation but no direct causation.

Taylor told me he’s also conducted focus groups with students still in school to better understand how the degree made a difference. They told him that they appreciated the degree as a motivator to continue, and in some cases, also as “an insurance policy” — something to fall back in case they didn’t finish their B.A.s. Working students told him they expected the degree would be valued by their employers, as a sign of their willingness to work hard.

That’s all fine and good, especially for students who haven’t already left college. But for me — and I suspect for some of the funders of this project — the value of reverse-transfer programs won’t be fully quantified until Taylor and company can tell us how a reverse-transfer degree on its own makes a difference for the student who’s getting it. That’s no knock on the value of self-motivation or a student’s hope that a degree might impress a boss. And I’m no ROI absolutist when it comes to higher education; I recognize that having a degree can matter in ways that go beyond the financial. I just think that projects like these would be seen as more valuable public policy with the added information.

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