By Mary Gwen Wheeler
The war for talent is raging among mid-sized cities like Louisville. If we want to compete for the information-age jobs of the future – or at least not be left behind — we need the kind of skilled, educated workforce that grows an economy.
Unfortunately, we aren’t quite there yet. While more than 65 percent of the jobs of the next decade require some training beyond high school, only 43 percent of the working-age population in Louisville has that level of education. That must change. And to change it, we must pursue and support innovative approaches to degree attainment.
A partnership between University of Louisville and Jefferson Community and Technical College is doing just that. The institutions’ Reverse Degree program awards associate degrees to transfer students who have earned enough credit hours in their combined studies at the schools. Since the program was launched in 2015, Jefferson has awarded more than 1,100 associate degrees to transfer students.
Making that happen wasn’t easy. The admissions teams at U of L and Jefferson had to manually comb through their records to determine who was eligible for an associate’s degree based on additional courses taken after transferring. They then reached out to each individual student alerting them to their degree eligibility.
Let me be clear: this was not a requirement or expectation for either institution. It took hard work, persistence and creativity from the admissions offices. While it helps both in their accountability metrics, the real benefit is to the students who put time, effort and funds into their studies. As U of L President Neeli Bendapudi said at a recent press conference celebrating the Reverse Degree program: “This is about giving credit where credit is due.”
Why are these degrees so important? For one, it’s motivating to students. Persistence data indicates that transfer students who are awarded an associate’s degree have a better chance of graduating with a bachelor’s. Second, it gives these students a credential that opens up opportunities for earnings and pathways to success –while they’re still on the path to a bachelor’s or even if they never finish at all. The reality is that many college students are juggling full-time work, families and other financial responsibilities, and it can take years to finish.
“We tend to think of college as a four-year experience – you’re in, you’re out and you’re on with life. That’s just not the pattern that people follow anymore,” Jefferson President Ty Handy said. “Many students take longer to complete degrees and that credential means something to them in the meantime. It gives them the opportunity for better work while they’re at the university.”
Unfortunately, many students – particularly low-income, first- generation college students – stop out of their education when life gets in the way. A car breaks down, a health issue derails them, or they are overwhelmed with how to make progress. Most “stop-outs” don’t come back, ending up with no credentialing and, often, with student debt. A “reverse” associate degree, then, provides that credential.
So, you ask, why aren’t Reverse Degree programs more widespread in our state, an expected opportunity for transfer students in Kentucky? It’s an innovative approach in a time in higher ed when is what we need. It’s the kind of initiative that earned Louisville a designation as a Talent Hub by Lumina Foundation – one of 24 communities nationwide that stands out for efforts to ensure resident of all backgrounds receive an education beyond high school. But to scale outcomes like the ones we’ve seen with Reverse Degree, policies around data-sharing must change.
Policies governing information-sharing amongst institutions don’t allow these programs to work easily. Lumina Foundation, 55K’s partner, is calling on Congress to change the rules so programs like Reverse Degree don’t have to be as cumbersome as it was for JCTC and U of L. Our state and federal lawmakers need to examine data-sharing and other policy barriers to reverse degrees, and look for ways to incentivize and make it easier for institutions to communicate and award certificates to students who have worked hard to earn them.
That way we won’t have to depend on people just doing the right thing – like those innovative teams in the admissions offices of UoL and Jefferson. Instead, we can rely on systematic awarding of earned credentials that open doors to a higher quality of life and stronger, more educated populace and position our city for the economy of the future.
Mary Gwen Wheeler is Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing education attainment in the Louisville area.