“Completion colleges” like Thomas Edison State University support highly mobile learners who acquired learning at multiple institutions, including learning acquired through military experience.

Few institutions in society will be spared as the worst economic, social, and public health crisis in our lifetimes unfolds. That includes higher education – but we can still seize the moment to fix a system that’s long overdue for change.

Millions of adults have started college but don’t have a credential, and with FAFSA filings down significantly and education plans in flux, it’s safe to assume that number will increase in 2020. But while the conditions that have led to more than 15 percent of our adult population holding some college credit but no credential represent a systemic failure for years, it’s my hope that the acute crisis in which we are living spurs states and institutions to action on behalf of students. It is time to heighten the priority, especially in public higher education systems, of assuring completion of high-quality degrees.  Progress has been made in increasing completion rates, but much more work is needed.

Specifically, we need to address inequities that have multiplied within higher education for decades. People of color are more likely to have some college credit but no credential, as most postsecondary institutions and states have allowed completion gaps to persist and grow. The long-term implications of not completing a credential are well-documented—those with some college earn median incomes nearly $20,000 less than those who hold a baccalaureate degree. The pandemic-driven unemployment crisis has negatively affected those with some college most.

Credential completion, and specifically high-quality, stacking credentials, should be goal No. 1 after ensuring students are fed, housed and safe. We can add “completion capacity,” the resources and commitment to get this done – in a variety of ways, through programmatic and structural changes.

  • Reverse Transfer – Through Degrees When Due, Lumina’s equity initiative to help states and colleges increase degree completion, we estimate that more than 3 million learners transferred from a community college to a four-year institution without completing an associate degree, and never completed the baccalaureate degree. These students frequently earned the credits required for an associate degree, but due to their transfer, never received it. States and institutions should immediately explore student transcript data, identifying those who have fulfilled credit requirements for associate degrees. Degrees When Due offers step-by-step support and guidance to conduct this process.
  • Barrier/Requirement Removal – Given the crisis, institutions should consider removing any requirements not related to competency that might be barriers to student completion. These requirements may include swim tests, computer literacy courses, unpaid institutional debt (like parking tickets and library fines) and graduation applications, among others. While these policies may have been implemented for good reason in the past, it’s hard to think of a good reason now.
  • Interim Credentialing – The Momentum Points structure in Washington State showed that students who reached specific, acknowledged landmarks in their education journey were more likely to earn a certificate or degree. While we’ve seen improved “stacking” of industry-recognized certifications into certificate and degree programs, interim credentialing approaches are not widespread. Colleges and universities, especially four-year colleges with the ability to grant associate degrees, should assess student progress and award certificates and degrees at the point they are earned, rather than waiting for the student to transfer or stop out. Not only would this recognize and validate student learning when it happens, it would provide students who might have to pause their journey with the credential they need to be competitive.
  • Completion Colleges – These unique colleges, like SUNY Empire State College and Thomas Edison State University, emerged in the 1970s to support highly mobile learners who acquired learning at multiple institutions. These colleges are designed to serve adults and those with complex education backgrounds, prioritizing credit acceptance and recognition of prior learning. States should immediately prioritize building out capacity for those who are near completion to complete credentials at low-cost and minimal time. States may tap one institution, likely a four-year regional comprehensive school with solid online programs and strong community college partnerships, to be a completion college. State efforts to re-engage stopped-out learners could be directed toward building streamlined, low-cost completion programs to get adult learners across the finish line with a credential.

These are just four ideas out of the dozens that are being considered and implemented across the country. I applaud states and institutions that are pivoting to meet learners’ needs and support them across the graduation stage. But after graduation season is over, millions of adults with some college credit will still lack the credentials they need to be competitive, and many more will likely join their ranks. In the spirit of solution, let’s not surrender to the immensity of the problems that we’re facing – but develop solutions for those who need them.

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