Program gives new life to unfinished college education
For the W.Va. Press Association
CHARLESTON — About 200,000 West Virginians — 20 percent of the state’s adults — have some college credits but no degree and every year about 3,000 seek to transfer their credits, said Paul Hill, the state’s chancellor of higher education.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin thinks one path to improving the state’s last-place ranking in the percentage of residents with a college degree is to make it easier to transfer credits.
Gov. Tomblin focused on this in his 2014 State of the State speech. “College students across the Mountain State report problems with the flow of class credits between public institutions of higher learning,” he said. “This increases their financial burden and delays the completion of their degrees.”
The Governor, who challenged the state’s colleges and universities to resolve the issue, gets progress reports every month at meetings of the Workforce Planning Council, which he personally chairs. After a recent council meeting Tomblin said one of his greatest pleasures as governor is seeing state government department heads — people who spend millions of taxpayer dollars on workforce training — coordinate their efforts.
Hill, who sits on the council, said credit transfers hadn’t been formally addressed in a number of years. “You do hear stories from students who try to transfer but find it a dead end. They simply are told their credits don’t transfer.”
The need to transfer credits can be traced to several factors, Hill said in an interview:
— People are more mobile. “Nationally, one in three students will go to more than one school and one in five will go to more than two schools.”
— “We see in some states more students starting in a community college as their first step since high school. You know many of those are going to transfer if their goal is a baccalaureate degree.”
— Older students often find that “life gets in the way. We see a lot of family and work issues.” Nationally, 7 out of 10 students work while they’re in school.
— “As we try to increase the enrollment numbers there are more people with different situations that ultimately find the need to transfer.”
Traditionally it was left to a department head or or dean to decide whether credits would transfer.
“Historically, the decision was made at a level where, as they say, it was almost that personalities were controlling this matter,” Hill said. “We should be doing it much more on an objective level that truly analyzes the content of the course rather than just saying, ‘I’m sorry but the course from XYZ Institution is not as good as my course at this institution and therefore I will not give you credit.’
“I think we’ve elevated the discussion to make it a policy matter rather than leaving it up to the whims of any given institution.
“Now the student can request an appeal. It can be brought all of the way up to the point that if the institution’s president still disagrees with the student, it can be brought to the state level and a group of peers — that is, academics from other institutions — can look at it and compare the record with the requirements of the institution.
“All of this is meant to try to resolve the issue as quickly as possible for the student.”
Hill believes many West Virginians with credits but no degree are over 25, the traditional college-going age. He said the state has tried to identify them, “to get them back in school and finished,” but they are scattered and there’s no central way to reach them.
Some West Virginians have more than 60 hours of credits, Hill said. That’s more than half of what’s needed for a bachelor’s degree and enough to receive an associate degree.
“We have financial aid for those people — HEAPS or Higher Education Adults Part-time grants,” he said. “They can go to school part-time and qualify for financial aid. Particularly now with the downturn in industry, we hope we can help more of those students.”
The free college- and career-planning website is www.cfwv.com. The financial aid hotline is 1 888 825-5707.
One indication that there has been some success in reaching potential non-traditional students is the fact a record 1,000 Regents Bachelor of Arts degrees were awarded last year. Candidates for the degree may earn credit for the skills and knowledge they have gained from life experiences.
Another helpful change impacts people who take some community and technical college courses but don’t get an associate degree before moving on to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Known as “Reverse Transfer,” it is designed to help students who have some community college credit but who have opted to jump into a bachelor’s degree program and haven’t completed an associate degree.
When the institution where a student in that situation is currently enrolled determines that the student has achieved 60 hours of credit, those credits are transferred back to the community college so it can grant an associate degree. Meanwhile, the student continues toward a bachelor’s degree.
“The theory is if life gets in the way, at least they have an associate degree,” Hill said. “They can go to a job interview and say, ‘I have a college degree.’ The idea is they walk away with some credential in hand.
“The research indicates it compels students to say, ‘Well, I have one degree, I’ll go ahead and finish the other one.”
Yet another change is known as the “70 percent rule.” It states that if 70 percent of the learning objectives of a course at one college are the same as at another college, the credits transfer, even if the courses have different names.
This is triggering the colleges and universities to put all of their learning objectives online so students can determine in advance where courses will transfer most readily. “That’s a lot of material,” Hill said. “West Virginia University alone offers 5,000 courses.”
The Higher Education Policy Commission already has a list of 900 core courses that transfer. In addition, the commission is bringing together the so-called “meta-majors” — academic programs with common or related content — to list core courses that transfer.
The biggest change is expected to occur in the fall of 2017, when a $200,000 module for Ellucian Co.’s DegreeWorks software is expected to go online at www.cfwv.com.
That’s when data for all of the courses at the state’s colleges and universities is expected to have been uploaded. The software promises that, with a few keystrokes, enrolled students can determine whether it’s likely course credits will transfer.
Tim Coley, a strategic consultant at Ellucian and a veteran academic adviser, said, “Student completion and persistence and success is a huge issue nationally and I know it is an issue for you all in West Virginia. We think nationally over the last 20 years there have been more than 30 million adults that are in the same situation, the trend known as ‘Some college, no degree.’”
Traditionally students get help from an adviser when seeking to transfer credits, Coley said. But advisers don’t always have the answer. “That begins to slow down the process,” he said, with students perhaps becoming frustrated if they take a course that won’t transfer.
The DegreeWorks module “will help the institutions get the right information,” he said. “It’s going to make that information accessible, particularly to the student so the student can take control and find out the information for themselves.
“That’s a big step for the student — to not have to go through an adviser to be able to access accurate information about whether a course will count at another school.
“This is going to be a powerful tool for current students to keep them enrolled, to help them make the decisions they need to make so they stay enrolled.
“We know that if a student stops out (takes a break for an academic term), especially if they stop out more than one time, the likelihood of them returning and completing decreases significantly. ”
Coley said the software can be an incentive for students to return to school because it will show a pathway to degree completion.
“It’s also going to educate the advisers so they don’t have to have the answer every time,” Coley said.
And instead of spending student-adviser meetings struggling to figure out if a course will transfer and what should be taken in the next academic semester, “the student can come to the meeting with that planned out.
“As an adviser, I can become more of a mentor to that student,” Coley said. “I can talk to the student about the bigger picture. I can motivate them to complete when we both understand the pathway.”