There's a nationwide search underway to find former students who don't know they've already done all or most of the work needed to earn a credential that might help them land a better-paying job.
In Michigan, several hundred community college dropouts were recently surprised to learn they had enough credits to qualify for an associate degree. There are also ex-students who apparently didn't know they're just a few credits shy of a two-year degree.
Those unclaimed credits could actually make them more employable, which matters in places like Michigan, where nearly 1 in 10 people is out of work and looking for a job.
"Michigan needs to do a better job of matching the supply of talent with the demand for talent," says Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder.
He calls this a "skills gap." But part of that could also be called a "credential gap."
Nine community colleges in the state were part of an effort led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy to find people who had done the course work but, for whatever reason, didn't claim their degree or certificate.
The schools audited their student records and found 800 students already qualified to graduate with an associate degree — and thousands more who were close.
Across the country, Project Win-Win identified about 4,500 people in nine states who dropped out of a community college after earning enough credits for an associate degree.
A lot of these students started at a two-year community college intending to transfer to a four-year college or university but never did, says Michael Hansen, who heads the Michigan Community Colleges Association.
"So they're really not focused, they're not interested at least at the time in the associate degree. The eye on the prize is the baccalaureate degree," he says.
But, Hansen says, there's still value to the education they've had.
In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with an associate degree on average earn $132 more per week than someone with just a high school diploma. People with degrees are also less likely to be laid off.
Lots of community colleges are getting into the act now, trying to lure back students who've dropped out or moved on.
About 19,000 students attend Lansing Community College at any given time, many on their way to a four-year university. The Lansing, Mich., college has its own program, called "Credit When Credit Is Due." It lets students who've moved on to four-year schools know they can come back and claim their credits, and maybe even a degree.
Student Services Dean Evan Montague says schools are getting better at coordinating credits and course loads with each other, and that's important as more students attend two, three or more schools.
"And I think that's what some of these initiatives are talking about," he says. "Let's look at all the educational experiences that you've had, and see how it lends itself to a credential that has value in the workforce, a credential that has value to you individually."
Montague says some students even return to community college after earning their bachelor's degrees.
And there's another payoff: As colleges and universities face pressure to boost graduation rates, finding former students who are ready to graduate right now — but don't know it — is an easy way to do that.
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