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By Juana Hernandez and Wayne Taliaferro
Nearly half a million adults in the Los Angeles area have completed some college but didn’t finish their degrees, according to the U.S. Census. Nationally, the figure is about 35 million Americans, or roughly 20 percent of the population between 25 and 64. Responsibilities at work and at home can make it incredibly challenging for these adults to return to college.
This is particularly true for students of color who have historically faced systemic barriers to college completion. Without a college credential, many hard-working adults will continue to languish in our workforce, unable to advance into higher-level jobs or maximize their earning potential. And yet, getting back on a traditional college path can often seem too expensive and time-consuming.
Communities across the country are tackling this challenge head-on. In 2017, UNITE-LA, the education arm of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, came together with California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and three L.A. Community College District colleges to launch CSUN Connections, a regional campaign to find formerly enrolled CSUN students and help them complete a first-time college degree. CSUN Connections is developing seamless “reverse transfer” pathways to help students transfer their CSUN credit in the reverse – that is, from a four-year institution to a two-year college – to obtain an associate degree. This can be transformative for adult students who are a long way from finishing a bachelor’s degree but within striking distance of an associate degree. The payoff can be huge in the workplace. Median earnings for adults with an associate degree are 17 percent higher than the median earnings of adults who have some college but no degree.
Given the high stakes, the CSUN Connections partners are reaching out to former adult students, rather than waiting for these students to find their way back to college. College staff are contacting students, exchanging transcripts, performing degree audits, and advising students on the best path to graduation. It is this type of out of the box thinking that earned Los Angeles a designation as a Lumina Foundation Talent Hub, and the CSUN Connections partners a California Governor’s Award for Innovation in Higher Education.
But successful efforts like these are an uphill battle. Though reverse transfer is a winning idea, two- and four-year institutions rarely collaborate in this way because current federal privacy law prohibits them from easily sharing certain student information – even when doing so would be in the students’ best interests. That’s why this spring, Lumina Foundation brought practitioners to Washington, D.C., to spark this dialogue. Lumina is working to empower education leaders to better understand federal policy processes while also informing federal policy leaders about these promising practices that need to be supported and scaled.
As Congress looks to reauthorize the long-overdue Higher Education Act, it has a chance to incentivize institutions to be more creative and collaborative when it comes to serving these students. Ideas like reverse transfer can make it easier for institutions to share student records to help students claim degrees that are within reach. Most importantly, we know the difference this can make in the lives of adults who can gain so much – from the single mom looking to earn more for her family to the veteran coming home from service. Their stories are the ones that should be driving policy.
Los Angeles is a great example of what can be achieved with creativity and collaboration. Now, we look to federal policymakers, who have the power and tools to help many more cities implement these urgently needed solutions.