Crossing the Finish Line: Research to Re-Engage and Support Students with Some College, No Degree

Millions of our nation’s students have accumulated significant college credit but have no credential to recognize their hard work. Roughly 4 million of these students are considered near-completers, meaning they have completed at least two years of coursework—often enough to earn an associate’s degree—and in many cases are just a few credits shy of the finish line.  These students may have pressed pause on their studies because of financial hurdles, class scheduling challenges, or caretaking obligations. But we can help them get back on track by partnering with campuses to identify and implement the best strategies to re-engage and support students with “some college, no degree.”

In a recent post, Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) President Michelle Asha Cooper introduced Degrees When Due, a national completion and equity initiative to help states and colleges increase degree attainment among the “some college, no degree” population with a practice we call degree reclamation. Never heard of degree reclamation?

Degree reclamation is a set of evidence-based and equity-focused strategies to help institutions:

  • Re-engage stopped-out students, providing targeted supports to help them complete their studies; and 
  • Help colleges award associate’s degrees to students who have earned the right credits at one or more institutions, a practice often called reverse transfer.

Degrees When Due scales the lessons we learned from two previous models that collectively resulted in 20,000 new associate’s degrees. The initiative launched earlier this fall and 50 campuses in eight states are participating on our first cohort. Within three years, we’ll welcome campuses in 32 states.  

In doing this work, we want to go further. We want to identify the re-engagement tactics that are most effective, and if those tactics yield differing results among low-income students and students of color as compared to their peers. Put simply, we want to answer this question: What degree reclamation strategies are most effective in increasing degree attainment and closing equity gaps?  

To answer this question, the Degrees When Due initiative includes a robust research agenda. Here are some highlights from what we are learning and a preview of what’s to come.

First, we are documenting exactly how Degrees When Due influences degree attainment and helps reduce equity gaps among the “some college, no degree” population. For example, we are tracking the number of students that institution re-engage and the number who receive new associate’s degrees. We are also assessing if these new students are more or less likely to be students of color, low-income students, and adult students.

Second, we are studying how receiving an associate’s degree through degree reclamation influences students’ education and employment outcomes. Descriptive findings and forthcoming inferential findings suggest that reverse transfer strategies are helping students continue their studies and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. We are building on this research by using institutional and state data and conducting focus groups with students to understand how degree reclamation influences students’ employment, earnings, and life circumstances. For example, we are asking students what it means to them to return to college or complete an associate’s degree, and we are asking students how degree reclamation influences or changes their careers and life.

Finally, we are studying how Degrees When Due facilitates institutional policy changes and builds campus capacity to implement degree reclamation strategies. We want to learn more about the most innovative campus practices that can help facilitate degree reclamation. For example, we are experimenting with campus communication and outreach tactics to understand what prompts students to return to college and finish their degree. In one state, we found that personalized communication that includes the number of credits remaining toward the associate’s degree is prompting students to re-engage. We are documenting these new policies and practices to understand the changes colleges must make to successfully scale degree reclamation.

The findings from the Degrees When Due research agenda will provide fellow researchers, campus leaders, and policymakers with additional evidence and specific strategies for increasing degree attainment and closing equity gaps among students with “some college, no degree.” We hope this research will help the field understand how to deliver real solutions to meet the needs of today’s students.

Jason Taylor is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah and is leading the Degrees When Due research agenda in partnership with the Institute for Higher Education Policy. To learn more about Degrees When Due, visit