ISU joins national degree completion initiative

Iowa State leaders learned last week the university was accepted into the national "Degrees When Due" initiative sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). The program identifies and reengages adults who started their college educations but stopped before earning a degree. The goal is to help more students, particularly those from historically underserved communities, complete their studies and compete for new kinds of jobs.

"We think it's going to be a great program. It allows us to be responsive and help the state meet its workforce needs," said associate provost for academic programs Ann Marie VanDerZanden. "What's really attractive is that it can look very different at each institution."

Degrees When Due is data-driven, she said, both in terms of identifying students who are close to completing degrees and solutions for helping them finish. She also said Iowa State is fortunate to be in a position to build on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' (LAS) success the last few years reaching out to former students who were close to completing a bachelor's degree, laying out a course map and making sure those courses were offered in a format the students could use.

Regent-wide effort

Iowa's three regent universities applied jointly to be in the Degrees When Due program's second class. Over two years, about 150 two- and four-year schools in 20 states have been accepted. Thanks to nearly $6 million in funding from the Lumina, Kresge and ECMC foundations and the Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., participating schools don't have to pay a fee.

Prioritizing for maximum impact

To get started, IHEP staff will provide training to core leadership teams on each campus, including instruction on how to use state data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and coaching to develop a work plan with the greatest impact. VanDerZanden said the ISU team will include representatives for the LAS college, registrar, institutional research, student affairs, provost and a few others. She estimated the behind-the-scenes training and preparation would take several months.

VanDerZanden said the campus planning process would involve identifying patterns in what's absent from former students' transcripts in order to prioritize courses that could satisfy the greatest number of needs and offering them in a format -- online or face-to-face, for example -- that's useful.

LAS college experiment

Associate dean for academic programs Amy Slagell credits online learning staff members Callie Morrow and Amanda Rasmusson with spotting the potential for inviting former LAS students to complete the flexible, interdisciplinary bachelor's of liberal studies, administered in the college. Respecting the obstacles that keep students from completing a degree and adding courses to the university's online offerings were critical to the project, Slagell said.

LAS's first invitation, in May 2017, went to 84 recent (within five years) LAS students with at least 100 credit hours and 2.0 GPA who hadn't defaulted on school loans and owed less than $1,000 on their U-bill. A second group got the invitation in spring 2018. College staff ran a degree audit for everyone who responded, seeking multiple paths to a degree. As of May, those invitations garnered 17 re-entering students, eight of whom had completed a degree.

Slagell said the college was able to accommodate the highly individualized work with existing staff. Degrees When Due will provide access to data and best practices for building a program systemwide, she said.

"I see this as part of our land-grant mission," Slagell said. "We're all tuned in to accessibility but also to student debt. What a serious setback it is to have the debt without the degree."