Degree completion outreach may become ongoing effort

Callie Morrow can empathize with ISU students who left school without graduating. She took a couple years off from Iowa State after getting married her sophomore year and had trepidations about whether she'd get a chance to come back and finish.  

"When you do, often your life is very different," said Morrow, senior academic advisor for the online learning program jointly run by the Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences colleges.

Like Morrow did, returning students may have parenting obligations the second time around. Or a full-time job. Or be living across the country. One way or another, there's usually juggling. 

"A lot of the advising conversations are about how you balance your life and still get your degree," she said. 

Those conversations have been more common in recent years, as Morrow's been involved in two initiatives designed to urge former students to complete degrees they are close to earning. Outreach in 2017 and 2018 targeted former LAS students and was followed by a 2020 effort to reach out to near-graduates from all the undergraduate colleges. 

The broader push -- led by the provost's office and spurred by participation in an Institute for Higher Education Policy initiative called Degrees When Due -- likely will become a recurring campaign, with new lists of potential returners pulled every couple years, said Shawn Boyne, director of academic quality and undergraduate education. 

"As a land-grant institution it's part of our mission to do everything we can to help students get across the finish line and graduate," she said. 

Personal impact

As part of the 2020 campaign, nine students have been awarded diplomas and four others are on track to graduate. That's after first identifying 507 students who left Iowa State three to five years earlier who were within 30 credits of graduating. Boyne and Morrow said though the proportion of potential completers successfully nudged is small, the impact on their lives is enormous.  

"Even if it was just one, it would be worth it," Morrow said. 

It took an ongoing team brainstorming effort to troubleshoot data issues and to identify and find students, involving a circle of folks from the registrar’s office, institutional research and LAS. Jane Jacobson, who retired as the LAS director of student enrollment, advising and career services in 2019, joined the project as a temporary employee to run initial degree audits on the overall list. Morrow worked directly with interested former students, collaborating with their prior advisors to consider specific options. A few students were able to graduate in their original program, while others found that it would be simpler to pursue a bachelor of liberal studies, an online-based degree program LAS offers. Sometimes a different year's catalog fit better with a student's transcript. Finding the most efficient path to graduation was like putting together a puzzle, Morrow said.  

"It's important work, but it's labor-intensive work," Boyne said. 

Assistance available

Twelve of the departed students identified in the initial sweep already had fulfilled the graduation requirements. But largely due to problems tracking down accurate contact information, only four of those students have been awarded the degrees they've earned. Even with the help of the ISU Foundation and social media, finding former students is a challenge, Morrow said. 

Different messages were crafted for students based on the amount of coursework remaining, and 130 students who were the closest to a diploma received a box of swag that included a specially designed coffee mug. 

"It was just to say, 'You're a Cyclone,' and get people excited about Iowa State again," Morrow said. 

For students who chose to enroll in courses aimed at finishing their degree, the provost's office funded a program to cover the tuition and fees in full for a student's first course and half the tuition and fees of any subsequent coursework. Those scholarships will remain available until the funding is gone, Boyne said.   

The opportunity to finish their degree at a discount – for free, if a student was just one course short – was a thrilling surprise for students, Morrow said. But simply having someone encourage them to finish and outline how it can be done is powerful in its own right, she said. 

"Every individual had a reason for leaving the institution. Maybe they're not ready to come back. But maybe they are, and they don't know their options," she said. "We get a lot of different kinds of reactions. But in the end, there is a lot of gratitude."