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Surprise! You Already Earned a Degree

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Family obligations, financial problems, conflicting work schedules…people drop out of college for a variety of reasons. Some have even started and stopped on multiple occasions throughout their lives, successfully taking plenty of college classes yet never graduating. Many have unknowingly accumulated enough credits to qualify for a degree; others are just a class or two away from graduation.

The appropriately-named Project Win-Win, launched in 2010, is reaching out to former students who are unaware that their earned credits mean they qualify for degrees. With financial support from the Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest independent foundation focused on increasing the number of Americans with high-quality higher education and college degrees, Project Win-Win is now helping over 60 colleges in six states award retroactive degrees. Students who are no more than nine to 12 credits shy of graduation are also encouraged to re-enroll and complete their degrees.

Too Much of a Hassle?

One might assume that filling out some missing paperwork, taking a class or two, or—in the case of a student mentioned by the Associated Press in this article—returning to campus to take an exit exam would cause a degree-earning frenzy. However, that’s not the case.

Hundreds of ex-college students have received their degrees or returned to school thanks to Project Win-Win, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. St. Louis Community College has been calling and emailing the 28-year-old mentioned above, who has been too busy to make the 30 minute drive to campus.

Her explanation? “It’s a pain.” She also didn’t feel like driving to school to take a test she doesn’t need.

Former Students Wary of Good News

Other students assume the phone calls and emails are a hoax. After all, “If you received a letter saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve earned a degree,’ what would you be thinking? That this is a scam. We had to get beyond them,” explained Tery Donelson, the assistant vice president for enrollment management at Columbia College in central Missouri.

In 2009, a seven month pilot phase of Project Win-Win featuring just nine colleges awarded nearly 600 associate degrees yet the same problems occurred. Contact information on student records is often outdated; it can be expensive to attempt to obtain accurate addresses and phone numbers. Students who were reached were often apprehensive. “‘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?’ Stephanie Tarver, dean of enrollment management at McNeese State University, told Inside Higher Ed at the time.

According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, it can take up to two years to identify and contact former students. Even so, the initiative was deemed successful enough to move forward. Donelson and his record-scrutinizing colleagues at Columbia have been particularly successful, awarding nearly 300 retroactive degrees. One was even given posthumously to the mother of a former student who had passed away.

Project Win-Win began as a way to help fulfill President Obama’s goal of increasing college graduation rates in the United States by 2020.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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