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The Degree He Didn't Know He Earned

Author: Helios Education Foundation

A student attending a Maricopa community college earned a large number of business course credits and intended to transfer to a business school to earn a four-year degree. But the student, Habib, had to stop taking classes so he could work to support his family. 

So when Ted Bland, the reverse transfer coordinator for the Maricopa County Community College District, recently told him he already had enough credits for a certificate of completion—and wasn’t far from finishing his associate degree—he was more than relieved. In fact, adding the certificate to his resume, he thinks, just might help him get the promotion he’s seeking at work.

“We’ve given him an employable credential and motivated him to go back to school,” Bland says. “We’ve adapted to what he had to do for his life.”

Habib’s story is not uncommon. Thousands of students from Maricopa community colleges—and from other systems across Arizona—transfer into universities each year without having completed an associate degree. Having a two-year degree or certificate, however, can expand a student’s job prospects and increase his or her earning potential.

The Reverse Transfer Initiative, which is being supported by a three-year grant from Helios Education Foundation, recognizes that not all students follow an uninterrupted path between high school and earning a college degree—even though the “architecture of higher education” has been built to serve students who attend school full time and graduate from the same institution at which they started, Bland says.

“There are a lot more stressors on students than there were 25 years ago,” Bland says. Gradually, he adds, the higher education system is “realizing that the architecture doesn’t match human behavior anymore.”

Boosting Students’ Confidence

Community college students are often only concerned with whether a course credit will transfer to a university, but not as well informed of whether those courses count toward their intended major, explains Maria Hesse, the vice provost for academic partnerships at Arizona State University (ASU), one of four institutions partnering with Maricopa in the initiative. The other three are Grand Canyon University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.

Students, Bland adds, also change majors and change institutions, which can contribute to accumulating credits, but not necessarily a degree or a certificate. Students with an associate degree are also more likely to continue their education and complete a bachelor’s.

Hesse notes that “intermediate milestones” in education are important, but adds that in her experience, first-generation and Latino students are often the least aware of how an associate degree can benefit them. “This is a little confidence boost,” Hesse says. “They are getting a little pat on the back that says, ‘You have achieved this degree. Keep going.’”

ASU already had an existing reverse transfer process in place for students who were part of the Maricopa-ASU Pathways Program (MAPP), a prescribed academic plan that clearly articulates the courses a student should take at the community college and university levels. As part of that process, students consent to allow their community college and ASU to exchange their transcripts under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

That process, however, didn’t capture the students who were not part of MAPP, or attended a community college outside of the Maricopa system. The new initiative expands the option to give consent to all students who apply to ASU. Embedding the consent into applications for admission is also taking place at NAU and UA.

In partnership with the four institutions, Bland reviews transcripts on a weekly basis and reaches out to former students who might be eligible for a retroactive associate degree or a certificate.

In the first year of the initiative, about 250 students received certificates or degrees through the reverse transfer process. But the numbers are increasing and just in the Maricopa system, the reverse initiative has the potential to award certificates or two-year degrees to 1,000 students per year, Bland says.

Initial results also show that reverse transfer is also helping Latino students in their postsecondary journey. One third of the students awarded a degree or a credential through the process identified as Hispanic, compared to one quarter of students across the whole district. In addition, more than half of the students graduating as a result of the initiative are the first in their family to go to college.

Some students who have transferred to a four-year institution are so focused on earning their bachelor’s degree that they are not very phased by receiving the two-year degree, Bland says. But most of them are very appreciative to hear the news. 

“In most cases, I’ve found that the students were excited about getting this additional credential for their transcript,” Hesse says. “They want recognition of what they have completed and they recognize the value of having an associate degree on their resume for now.”


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