Higher Education

States connect students with degrees they don’t know they’ve earned

To help catch up to lagging education targets, states reach out to non-grads

A student at Guttman Community College in New York City reads before the start of a class. Momentum is building to give associate degrees to students who have left community colleges but earned enough credits to get one.

A student at Guttman Community College in New York City reads before the start of a class. Momentum is building to give associate degrees to students who have left community colleges but earned enough credits to get one.

A senior at Purdue University, Sage Archer was surprised to get an email out of the blue from the community college where she’d taken summer courses years before.

It told her she’d amassed enough credits for an associate degree and could get one at no further cost and with almost no effort.

“I thought, there has to be a catch,” she said.

Archer never intended to pick up an associate degree. Those summer courses at the community college were prerequisites for the bachelor’s degree she’s on her way to getting to become a dietician. But when the meter on the credits she’d collected clicked to 60 — enough for an associate degree and halfway to a bachelor’s — she became the latest beneficiary of a small but growing strategy in higher education.

“It’s kind of cool to tell people, ‘Yeah, I have a degree already.’ It’s kind of motivating,” Archer said. It also may distinguish her when it’s time to get one of the competitive postgraduate internships she’ll need in her field.

Besides, she said, the community college, Ivy Tech of Indiana, handled all the logistics and paperwork. “I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t think it would be that easy.”

That’s because the process, called reverse transfer, can help states meet the goal of increasing the proportion of their populations with degrees, something they’ve been struggling to do to attract employers. It’s being further encouraged by new state funding policies that reward public universities and colleges for the number of graduates they produce.

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It works for students, too. Having an associate degree means earning $200,000 more over their lifetimes than people who have some college credits but never graduated, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and $400,000 more than high school graduates who didn’t get any further educations.

Yet more than three-quarters of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year university don’t stop to pick up an associate degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Forty percent still don’t have a bachelor’s degree six years later, researchers at the University of Utah have found.

Reverse transfer gives them — and their states, which subsidize public higher education and benefit economically by having more residents with postsecondary credentials — something to show for the time and money they’ve already put in.

“These students have earned the degree. They should get it,” said Sue Ellspermann, president of Ivy Tech and a former Indiana lieutenant governor.

Pilot programs in 17 states have so far conferred about 20,000 associate degrees in this way over the last five years, a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found.

That’s a tiny fraction of the 2 million who the National Student Clearinghouse estimates are eligible. It’s an even smaller share of the number needed to help increase the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials from the current 46 percent to 60 percent by 2025 — a goal that will require 16.4 million more people to get one than current trends project, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

But momentum is building, with new programs cropping up and a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last month to loosen federal privacy laws that complicate the process of sharing information among institutions about how many credits students have accumulated.

The National Student Clearinghouse has created a platform for credit and grade data to be exchanged among institutions, with student consent, not only within states, but nationwide, since 40 percent of students who transfer do so across state lines.

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There’s also new research suggesting that students who get associate degrees through reverse transfer are from 5 to 18 percent more likely to continue on to a bachelor’s degree than their classmates who are eligible for the program but forgo it.

“A lot of these students have been in school for a while. They maybe went part time through community college. There’s something to be said about how receiving a[n associate] degree might boost their confidence and build momentum,” said Jason Taylor, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah, who studies this.

A runner, Ivy Tech’s Ellspermann likens getting an associate degree to finishing a half marathon on the way to training for a marathon — or, in this case, working toward a bachelor’s degree.

“If you’ve run a half marathon, you have confidence that you can run the full marathon,” she said.

Some students may end up deciding to just stop at an associate degree. Twenty-eight percent of associate degree holders earn more than workers with bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown center says.

“One thing we see in our state is that there are a number of good jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree,” said Lisa Johnson, director of academic affairs at the North Dakota University System, which started a reverse transfer pilot program last year.

That creates still other obstacles to reverse transfer, in addition to those privacy laws: Private universities or colleges in particular have little interest in encouraging their students to get associate degrees that might encourage them to cut short their tuition-producing further educations. For their part, community colleges would rather students stay and get degrees the first time around, rather than having to catch up with them later, and therefore may not publicize the option to students who are currently enrolled. “They don’t want them to leave,” said Taylor.

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Reverse transfer is not only largely unknown among students — “Nobody had ever heard of it” Archer said of her classmates — it works in different ways in different states.

In some, public universities and colleges jointly track when their students have earned the 60 credits they need to get an associate degree, triggering the students to be notified. Others leave it up to the students to do the work.

To qualify for reverse transfers, students who have continued on to four-year universities need to have earned as few as 15 of those 60 credits at a community college (Maryland) to as many as 45 (Pennsylvania), before picking up the rest on their way to bachelor’s degrees.

Some states require that students fill out a release allowing their university transcripts to be sent to the community college where they began their educations; others, that they request and provide the transcripts themselves.

One semester from getting a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation and human services at the University of North Dakota, Matthew White got an email from Bismarck State College, where he’d started his education. It said he had earned not one but two associate degrees. That’s because the core requirements applied to both an associate of sciences degree and associate of arts, for which electives filled in the remaining credits.

“At first I thought it was a scam,” White said. “I said, ‘What do I have to do,’ and they said, ‘Nothing.’”

El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso jointly monitor their students’ progress and, when they have enough credits for an associate degree, simply give them one — or, if they prefer, let them dress up in a cap and gown and collect it at the community college graduation ceremony.

The two schools have awarded more than 2,000 degrees this way.

“They get a letter that says, ‘Congratulations, you have an associate degree,” said Gary Edens, the university’s vice president for student affairs. “Many of them didn’t know they were going to get it. The families get really energized. The parents call and cry and say, ‘This is the first time anyone in our family has gotten a degree.’”

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Community colleges review the coursework and make the final decisions about whether to award degrees.

That’s another roadblock on the journey. At a time when a record two-thirds of students move from one institution to another at least once, even public higher education institutions in the same states and systems sometimes won’t take transfer credit from each other. Students who transfer among public institutions lose an average of 37 percent of their credits, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last month, and students overall, when they transfer, lose 43 percent of the credits they’ve already earned.

This costly problem is gradually being addressed, said Michelle Blackwell, manager of reverse transfer at the National Student Clearinghouse and former director of transfer student services at Middle Tennessee State University.

Still, she said, “Just because you’re sending your credits back doesn’t guarantee the student is getting the degree. They have to have the right credits.”

White, in North Dakota, had more than enough of the right credits when he became the first student in that state to benefit from reverse transfer.

“It pads your resume, that you were able to accomplish not only your bachelor’s but two associate degrees along the way,” White said. “Plus, for me, it was really rewarding. It meant I had accomplished something on my way to the four-year degree.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.

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