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If community colleges were to find all the formerly enrolled students whose academic records qualify them for an associate degree and retroactively award them the credential, then the number of associate degrees awarded in the United States would increase by at least 12 percent.

This compelling projection by the Institute for Higher Education Policy is one of the primary reasons why it is working with the Lumina Foundation for Education to roll out the three-year, $1.3 million Project Win-Win. This initiative will financially support 35 community colleges and four-year institutions in six states — Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — so they can track down and retroactively award qualified students associate degrees who, for whatever reason, never received one. It also will help these institutions identify students who have recently dropped out who are “academically short” of an associate degree by nine credits or fewer and re-enroll them to finish a degree.

“Project Win-Win has the potential to make a considerable down payment on increased degree completion goals set by state governors and the Obama Administration,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, IHEP president, in a statement.

Last year, nine of the project’s institutions ran a pilot of this program during a seven-month period; they awarded nearly 600 associate degrees and identified almost 1,600 students who were just shy of earning one. The pilot, however, revealed a number of difficulties that institutions face when attempting to retroactively award degrees.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Stephanie Tarver, dean of enrollment management at McNeese State University, which awards associate degrees as well and was part of the pilot program. “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.”

Then, even when candidates for degrees and those just shy of them were identified, reaching them proved just as challenging.

“At that point, we don’t have as much control as we do in the other areas because these students have been out for a while,” Tarver said. “We didn’t know if the contact information we had for them was accurate. We didn’t know how to get accurate information without spending lots of money to find it. Also, when we finally did make contact, some of the students were leery of us. ‘You’re calling me out of the blue and saying I’m qualified for a degree and want to offer it to me? What’s the catch?’ ”

Eventually, though, McNeese awarded about 15 associate degrees, out of approximately 150 former students who met degree requirements. Officials also tracked down about 300 students who were just short of graduation and are in the process of helping those who wish to complete find a way to do so.

“A lot of the students who dropped out of school didn’t realize just how close they were to finishing,” Tarver said. “The success stories we’ve had are truly heartwarming, especially for those who didn’t realize they were qualified for a degree. We made an immediate impact on their lives. Rarely have I felt we’ve impacted students as we did through this project.”

Though many of the institutions participating in the project had never before made efforts to retroactively award degrees, a few of them have been doing it for a while and have found ways to integrate this into regular degree audits for current students.

Anna Flack, registrar at Suffolk County Community College, in New York, noted that her institution has made it a point to search for these “lost graduates” at least once every year for the past decade.

“We did this on a small scale,” Flack said. “It was really part of office procedure. … We made it part of the daily responsibilities of the degree audit staff.”

With students who are just a few credits short of earning an associate degree, Flack said, the college has adopted a no-pressure approach in approaching them.

“We’ve just sent letters to students, saying that they can finish if they’d like to,” Flack said. “ 'Here are the different ways you can reach that degree.' There’s no convincing, no strong-arming, no sales pitch. 'We just see this, and we’d like you to know about it.' ”

Those pushing the project at the national level argue that, despite some of the challenges in the degree audit process, this is a relatively easy way to boost graduation rates around the country.

“This is an issue that hasn’t been raised,” said Cliff Adelman, senior associate at IHEP. “We’re saying to these institutions, ‘Hey, guys, you haven’t paid attention to people based on your criteria who’ve crossed the degree threshold. You’ve been asleep at the wheel.’ There’s all this talk about awarding these degrees, but they’re just making a lot of noise. This is low-hanging fruit.”

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