“If you received a letter saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve earned a degree,’ what would you be thinking?” he said. “That this is a scam. We had to get beyond them.
“We told them they earned a degree, and all they had to do was acknowledge it,” Donelson continued. “We didn’t want to send a degree to anybody who didn’t want it.”
Participating schools pared down their initial lists by eliminating students who received degrees elsewhere or were currently enrolled. Expired addresses or disconnected phone numbers eliminated many more.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy, which oversaw the project, initially estimated a potential increase of 25,000 new degrees if its efforts took hold nationwide. But most schools found the exercise more difficult than expected, said Cliff Adelman, a senior associate with the Washington-based policy group.
“It ain’t as easy as you think,” he said. “You can’t use a magic wand and have this kind of thing happen.”
In Oregon, a review of more than 6,000 students’ academic records at the state’s 17 community colleges found 109 degree-eligible students and another 905 who might qualify. Virginia’s Tidewater Community College awarded 34 degrees and convinced 15 more students to return to campus from its initial pool of 651 prospects.
Four-year schools could follow the lead of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which used the program to connect with dropouts who might still be interested in a two-year diploma. Or they could link up with neighboring community colleges in what are known as “reverse transfer” agreements.
Those agreements allow students to receive their associate’s degrees if they earned enough credits toward them but didn’t actually obtain them before heading to a four-year school. The two-year schools, in turn, can boost their completion rates — a critical measure for accrediting agencies and lawmakers looking for results.
One student happy to hear about what amounts to a free degree is Corey Manuel, 34, an Air Force veteran who expects to receive a bachelor’s degree in management information systems from Columbia College. He took his classes at a Denver-area branch campus.
Manuel said his educational journey includes nearly 200 credits from five different schools, including a one-year stint straight out of high school playing basketball at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo., and a pair of stops at Louisiana State University’s community college in Eunice.
Now an information technology manager at defense contractor Raytheon, Manuel nonetheless still craves the credential he was too busy to pick up along the way.
“I wanted to make sure I had that box checked,” he said.