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Outreach Considered for Students Just Shy of a Degree

While much of the reporting on college access and completion is on students who enter straight out of high school and proceed through graduation, the path is not that linear for many. Sometimes life gets in the way of a degree and students drop out just shy of a degree for personal, financial, or academic reasons.

"Near completers" are considered students who have completed most of their course requirements and maintained their grades for a degree, but are short a few credits. The challenge of re-engaging these students and supporting them to the finish line of college completion was the focus of the National Summit of Near Completion in Washington this week.

If educators and policymakers can solve the mystery of why students left campus, lure them back, and give them incentives to complete their studies, it could be a huge help in meeting the goal set by the government and philanthropic organizations to increase the number of college graduates in the country in the next decade.

Near-completers, by definition, already have most of the skills represented by a college degree and many have jobs that reflect their investment in education. However, receiving the credential could boost near-completers' earning power and open other career doors. It would also be a win for employers, educators, and policymakers, according to a background paper by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit that sponsored the summit.

Students who are close to receiving a degree represent the "low-hanging fruit" in our national agenda to increase the number of college graduates, the IHEP notes. Yet there are significant barriers to achieving the near-completion agenda, and thought leaders at the summit tackled four:

Recruitment: How to you identify and attract students back to higher education who may have left because of some failed relationship between the institution and the students?
Assessment:
Systems are needed to review the prior knowledge students may have attained outside the classroom and what credits can be accepted.
Affordability: For those already in the workforce, returning to school can be costly, and institutions should consider help with tuition or books to offset the expense.
Recognition of completion: If a student starts at one school, but finishes at another, the issues of credit transfer and degree requirements can be tricky.

The big hurdle comes down to the incentive for institutions. Since graduation rates are based on first-time, full-time freshmen, the school has little reason to invest much in helping near-completers get a degree since their completion won't count in the college's overall rate.

Economic pressures are prompting so many students to go part time or draw their education out over so many years that new measures are needed to keep up with the changing times. Also, more research is needed to better estimate the number of near-completers out there and best practices that work in connecting with this population. Higher education is stretched so much now that it will need more information and structures in place before this agenda is likely to garner much more momentum.

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