Higher education is the surest pathway to a better living and a better life. Yet, the goal of a valuable college credential goes unrealized for too many students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Today, more than 39 million Americans have some college credit, but no awarded degree and, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions more did not enroll to begin their higher education journey.
In 2018, well before the pandemic began, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) launched the Degrees When Due (DWD) initiative to reengage the “some college, no degree” (SCND) population. Over the course of three cohorts, we worked with teams at nearly 200 institutions – both two-years and four-years – from 23 states to build institutional capacity to award degrees to students who have earned them, reengage former students who have stopped out, and equip students with degrees that help them get ahead in today’s workforce. Over the course of DWD degree audits – the process of reviewing transcripts to identify near-completers and students who are eligible for a degree that has not yet been awarded – we learned that nearly one in ten students who received a degree audit had already met the requirements for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but that degree was never conferred.
In other words, existing policies and practices meant that one in ten of these students had an earned degree “left on the table.”
Now several years after the onset of a global pandemic that exposed and deepened long-standing inequities, declining college enrollments across the country disproportionately impact students of color and students from low-income backgrounds—the very people who were disproportionately harmed by the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. These are also the students most likely to start their higher education journeys at a community college and most likely to need to stop out before completing a degree – 30 percent more likely than their White peers. In many cases, stopped out students have taken on the debt of higher education expenses but do not see the economic and non-economic benefits that a degree or credential can provide.
Which makes adult reengagement and degree completion – the work of DWD – more urgent than ever before.
In the words of DWD participant Barbara Henry, Assistant Vice President of Non-Traditional & Military Student Services at Bowling Green State University in Ohio: “Students with some college, no degree need to be connected. They need to be connected to the institution. They need to be connected to a very clear pathway to degree completion. And then they need someone there every step of the way helping them. So that’s an intense investment in human capital. But I believe that it is the way we are going to make a tremendous difference for this population of students.”
Stopped out students and prospective students absolutely do need to be connected – or reconnected – to higher education through DWD’s intentional, student-centered, data-informed, and equity-focused efforts. And the need for connections applies across numerous facets of postsecondary education in 2022:
- Institutions need to connect with their data to understand the barriers that are causing students to stop out.For many DWD participating institutions, the only barrier between students and their degree was not a matter of learning or skill development, but bureaucratic barriers like incomplete paperwork or account holds.
- The field needs to connect with the fact that the current conversation about “an enrollment cliff” and high school graduate pipeline fails to recognize the millions of people who have already earned or are within close reach of a degree or who did not enter college immediately after high school.
- Employers need to connect with workers in order to meet the needs of today’s workforce, and that includes those who started their postsecondary journey but have not yet been awarded a degree.
- Practitioners, whose voices are too often missing from policy debates, need to connect with policymakers to share their unique and critical perspective.
- And policymakers need to connect institutions who serve historically marginalized students, including community colleges, with support to undertake effective but resource-intensive strategies like degree audits – many of which are still being completed by hand.
Whether deciding not to enroll or needing to stop out before crossing the college finish line, not earning a degreeis a major missed opportunity for individuals, their families, communities, and the workforce. In short, declining enrollment and completion rates harm our country as a whole. As highlighted in the Congressional briefing IHEP hosted last fall, DWD institutions across the country are seeing inspiring results from strategies such as degree auditing and policies that prioritize reengaging SCND students.
In the face of enrollment declines and COVID disruptions, the time to refine, spread, and scale the strategies and reforms demonstrated in DWD has never been more urgent. Now is the time to reverse declining enrollment, to expand the work of DWD, and to transform lessons learned into wide-reaching policy solutions. Doing so will provide a strong economic future for individuals, boost growth of our workforce, and build a country in which all students can reach their full potential through higher education, regardless of race, background, or circumstance.
Piper Hendricks, J.D. is the Vice President of Communications & External Affairs at the Institute for Higher Education Policy
Mamie Voight is the President and CEO at the Institute for Higher Education Policy