Peter Callaghan: Finding college graduates (who don’t know they are)

Staff WriterOctober 29, 2013 

It is central to Washington’s economic and education policies, as it is in most states:

Increase the number of residents with college degrees and certificates, and you make them more prosperous and the state more competitive.

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reported that September unemployment nationally was 10.3 percent. But that dropped to 6 percent for those with some college or an associate degree and 3.7 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher.

Incomes, like employment, rise with education level.

But paying for access to higher education — as well as increasing the number of slots — has become a challenge that was made tougher by the Great Recession. Washington followed the easy path of reducing tax support and increasing reliance on tuition, something that helped balance the budget but makes it tougher for some to afford college.

Which is why a foundation-funded program being tested in other states, including Oregon, has potential for increasing the number of degrees at relatively little cost. Called Project Win-Win, the idea is to data mine student information at state and even private colleges to find students who have the credits needed to earn a degree or certificate but left college without claiming it.

Sometimes these were students at four-year schools who dropped out without completing the credits to earn a bachelor’s but have more than enough for a two-year degree. If those schools do not grant associate degrees, the credits have to be transferred to a community or technical college.

The same record searches also targeted students within a handful of credits of getting a degree. They were invited back and given special help to finish what they started. Some Washington universities already do this both to help the student and to increase the school’s completion rate.

At only a handful of colleges in just six states, Win-Win data mining found and got degrees into the hands of 4,500 former students.

The project, run by the Institute for Higher Education Policy with a grant from the Lumina Foundation, estimates that nationwide expansion would help create an additional 250,000 degrees.

The Washington Student Achievement Council, the successor to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, uses federal Census data to estimate that there are 450,000 state residents ages 17 to 54 who have some college but are not earning a living wage based on federal surveys.

Washington is not part of Project Win-Win, but the pending “Road Map” being developed by the achievement council and its staff includes this goal: “Develop data tools and best practices for contacting, advising and counseling students with some college credits but no degree to return to complete their degree.”

But what if they didn’t have to return, just agree to accept a degree they’ve already earned?

The biggest issue facing the state is making sure that high school graduates are ready — academically — to do college-level work. But the people who might benefit from Win-Win have already shown they can do the work, but stopped short of finishing because, as achievement council deputy director Don Bennett put it, “life got in the way.”

The challenge is finding them. The pilot projects completed elsewhere showed that the data collection and analysis systems are just now becoming sophisticated enough to look for students who attended more than one school in more than one state.

“It looks interesting,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, the Democrat from Gig Harbor who is chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “I’ll add it to my work list.”

But he also sees programs like this as the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” and doesn’t want the colleges to feel that it is all that is demanded of them.

“I don’t want to let the universities off by just bringing back those who are close,” Seaquist said. The tougher problem is finding ways into certificate and degree programs for those with no college and who are stuck in low-paying and less-secure jobs, a population Seaquist estimates at 1.5 million in this state.

In the meantime, if you think you are close, get in touch with a community college counselor and ask for the credit — and degree — you might have already earned.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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