Some College Dropouts Get a Surprise

11 Oct

Schools use data mining to award degrees earned unknowingly 

Travis Turauski, a 34-year-old commercial roofer in Wisconsin, received a letter last year that offered him an incredible-sounding deal—an associate degree without having to crack open another book.

“At first I didn’t know if it was real or whatever,” says Mr. Turauski. “You get a lot of junk mail these days.”

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point was writing to tell Mr. Turauski that he was among 228 former students who had left the school without earning a bachelor’s degree but who met the requirements for an associate degree. All he had to do was say yes.

The school’s letter was part of a foundation-funded experiment called Project Win-Win using data-mining techniques made practical only in the past few years to track down people who left college early and award them credentials they earned without knowing it. The 60 participating colleges found more than 6,700 students already eligible for an associate degree and about 20,000 who needed no more than 12 credits to finish. So far, the schools have tracked down and awarded associate degrees to more than 4,500 former students, including 143 at Stevens Point.

“It’s a win for the students, and it’s a win for the institutions,” says Cliff Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a research group in Washington, D.C. The institute produced the four-year project at a cost of $2 million with the participating schools, most of which were community colleges. The schools improve their graduation rates, and the students have a shot at higher earning potential, Mr. Adelman says. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, U.S. workers over the age of 25 earned median annual wages of about $62,000 with associate degrees in 2010, while those with some college but no degree earned about $44,000.


“Completing a credential is very important in our economy,” says Holly Zanville, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, one of the major funders of Project Win-Win. “This is part of the redesign of higher education to follow students more carefully, to improve support services, to help track milestone markers and to recognize the significant learning toward completion of credentials as they occur.”

To find candidates for the program, the schools searched their records for students who had left without a degree but met certain guidelines, such as completing between 45 and 60 credits while maintaining a minimum grade-point average. Once students passed through those filters, school officials passed them on to the National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies students’ degree attainment, to see if any students had moved on to other schools to finish their degrees.

Sifting the data can be tricky. One school discovered that it had no record of the intended majors of the students who dropped out, which made it much more difficult to gauge how close the students were to fulfilling their requirements. Many of these schools will revamp their record-keeping practices, Mr. Adelman says.

Since the pilot project began, Oregon has implemented the program methods statewide, Mr. Adelman says, and Florida and New York are in the process of doing so. Michigan has nine schools onboard and Virginia six, he says.

Dan Kellogg, the registrar at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, says his office is in the process of incorporating parts of Project Win-Win into its routine duties. “I think it’s our responsibility to say, ‘Hey, you’ve met the credentials for a degree,’ ” Mr. Kellogg says. “Plus, maybe we’ll see them again.”

Mr. Turauski, who dropped out of a general-studies bachelor’s program in 2003 after relocating for a job, says he might return to school one day if his current work as a roofer doesn’t pan out. Meanwhile, he’s grateful for the associate degree.

“It is better than not having anything,” he says.


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