Millions of Americans have earned some college credit but no degree. Some experts think institutions of higher education—not former students—are partly to blame.
Through Degrees When Due, a project of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, nearly 200 two- and four-year colleges are digging through data and auditing administrative policies to figure out how many such students they’ve lost, and why.
Barriers such as outdated course requirements, and the practice of putting holds on transcripts for unpaid fees, can be especially onerous to students who are less able or less likely to advocate for themselves, like students of color, low-income students and first-generation students, says Kate Mahar, dean of institutional effectiveness at Shasta College.
“Every time you talk about it, it’s kind of like a gut punch. I can’t believe we were doing that to students, adding that extra barrier,” she says. “What are the lessons here? What have we learned that can make a difference for the next folks coming through?”
In keeping with that mindset, some education leaders refer to lost students as “stopouts” rather than “dropouts.”
“Dropping out sounds like it’s some failure of the student,” says Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the institute. “Really what we’re looking at is systemic problems. What could the institution have been doing better?”
The full data on stopouts from the first cohort of participating colleges is still forthcoming, but some early results are “quite remarkable,” Mahar says.
For example, Oakland Community College, in Michigan, has identified 900 students who in the last six years earned a degree but never had it posted to their records.
“The best-intentioned policies just get stuck on the books,” Ajinkya says. “What we’re trying to do is help institutions realize they also can serve as barriers to well-meaning students.”
Here are four common roadblocks that deter students from completing college, according to the group’s analysis.
Students, especially those at community colleges, don’t always realize when they’ve earned enough credits to qualify for a credential. Although inadequate advising may contribute, this phenomenon can also occur when students have a specific goal in mind, such as transferring to a four-year college, and accidentally take enough classes to pick up an associate degree along the way.
General studies and liberal arts associate degrees are most likely to be “left on the table” by students who intend to pursue other options, Ajinkya says.
Neglecting to get official credit for this work may not matter much for students who actually achieve those more-ambitious education goals. But for those who stop out of college before attaining other credentials, these surprise degrees could be quite valuable, Ajinkya says, perhaps even making a significant difference in employment outcomes.
“We are constantly hearing from the business sector, they want future workers who exhibit skills we sometimes call soft skills: strong communication skills, leadership development, time management,” she explains. ”We know these are competencies you can accumulate in general studies or liberal arts, which are teaching you a general curriculum.”
At Shasta College, a community college in northern California, stopout data has revealed that some students who never met their goal of earning a particular psychology associate degree that would guarantee them admittance into a bachelor’s program still successfully earned a different kind of psychology associate degree, but never realized it.
This is the sort of circumstance that recently led the college to identify more than 200 former students who actually qualify for a degree. Some of those qualify for more than one.
To reveal surprise degrees in real time and make sure students reap the benefits of their efforts sooner, some colleges are working to improve automation systems that flag when a student has qualified for a credential, says Stephen Linden, registrar at Oakland Community College.
He enjoys delivering to former students the unexpected news that they’ve earned degrees.
“It’s the Christmas of higher ed,” Linden says. “We’re able to provide a gift they’ve truly earned already but never received.”
It’s the Christmas of higher ed. We’re able to provide a gift they’ve truly earned already but never received.”
Final Course Requirements
Seemingly innocuous degree requirements can keep students from crossing the college finish line. These can be specific math courses or even swim tests. That’s right, a handful of U.S. colleges still require students to don bathing suits to prove they can tread water or complete a few laps.
Data analysis at Shasta College showed that since 2013, 658 students stopped out despite having at least 60 credits, including the four courses required to transfer to a California State University campus. Of those students, 80 were missing only the computer-literacy course that the institution required for graduation. Such students could have taken a computer skills exam instead to test out of the class, but that option also cost money.
To help these students, Shasta first decided to waive the test fee. But ultimately, the academic senate voted to nix the requirement altogether, since so many students now come out of high school already possessing computer skills.
“It was a barrier, not an asset,” Mahar says.
Additionally, some colleges have “last-credit requirements” that mandate students earn a particular number of their final courses at the institution from which they hope to graduate.
The premise for this policy, which can be burdensome for transfer students, is an assumption that those last classes are among the most significant and reflective of a degree program, Linden says.
But students don’t always save their most important classes for last, he adds, and asking them to take extra classes just to meet the criteria can be a deterrent: “What student is going to want to compete nine additional credits?”
Relatively small debts to colleges can stall students from making progress toward attaining their degrees—or even prevent them from picking up diplomas they’ve earned. Unpaid parking tickets, library fines and graduation fees can result in transcript holds that block students from officially getting their credentials or transferring to other institutions.
A possible solution is institutional debt-forgiveness. Wayne State University, a four-year college that has lost more than 12,000 “stopped out” students since 2004, is experimenting with one such effort, which they call Warrior Way Back.
Because Wayne State rules prevent students who owe $1,500 or more from registering for future school terms, college leaders decided to invite former students who owe up to that amount and who have paused their studies for at least two years to re-enroll. After eligible students graduate or take three consecutive semesters, their debt is cancelled.
When the program started in fall 2018, 56 students—with an average age of 39—came back to campus. Nine students graduated after one semester, and their old debt was wiped out.
This kind of program doesn’t just stand to benefit students; it can also generate new tuition dollars for colleges. The college calculated that collecting debt from all its stopped-out students (already an unlikely scenario) would yield $2.5 million, while getting those students to come back and finish their degrees would net $12.5 million.
Indeed, in the first seven months of operating Warrior Way Back, Wayne State earned a net revenue of $200,000 from re-enrolled students.
To encourage other colleges to consider institutional debt-forgiveness, IHEP has created a “reengagement investment calculator” so they can run the numbers for themselves.
Completing all the courses required for a degree rarely leads directly to a framed diploma on a student’s wall. All the steps institutions require would-be graduates to take before crossing the commencement stage can stymie their efforts to gain credentials.
“My president says all the time, ‘People know you have to apply to college, but some folks don’t know you have to apply to get back out,’” Mahar says.
To address this problem, Shasta College has started prompting students to apply to graduate earlier in their college careers so they have more time to catch potential problems before being thrown off track.
Why not automatically award students degrees once they’ve got enough credits? Consent is important to consider, Mahar says, since some students prefer not to record degrees earned for financial aid or immigration status reasons.
Still, colleges can do more to shift the burden of degree conferral onto institutions and off of students, experts say. That’s why at Oakland Community College, leaders notifying those 900 stopped-out students that they’ve already earned degrees take an “opt-out” approach by conferring diplomas unless students specifically request otherwise (see letter below).
This has worked better than traditional “opt-in” systems, which “can yield far fewer ultimate completions,” Linden says.
This is an example of the kind of note Oakland Community College sends to former students who earned degrees without realizing it.