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Twelve years after graduating from high school, Stephen Houx had earned a lot of college credits before and after a five-year stint in the Marine Corps, but he was still working toward a degree. Then out of the blue, he was notified last year that his time at Gateway Community College plus his courses at Arizona State University added up to an associate in science degree.
“It was a nice surprise to get that,” said Houx, who will be a senior at ASU in the fall. “It was a little motivating step along the way to let me know I’ve accomplished something. It’s easy to get lost and question your major or think you’re falling behind.”
Houx is one of nearly 500 ASU students who have benefited from “reverse transfer” — a program in which their ASU credits are added to their Maricopa Community Colleges credits and they are awarded an associate degree.
Houx said it was gratifying to find out that he had earned a degree without even realizing it. He attended the graduation ceremony at Gateway Community College and hung the degree on a wall with his military honors.
“If I ever had to drop out, they can never take that away from me,” said Houx, who is majoring in criminal justice.
And that’s the point of the program.
Under reverse transfer, ASU works with all 21 tribal and public community colleges in Arizona to identify students eligible for degrees. In the 2016–17 academic year, about 43 percent of transfers from Arizona two-year colleges arrived at ASU with credits but no associate degree.
The program fulfills an important mission, according to Maria Hesse, vice provost for academic partnerships at ASU.
“This is what the state wants — more college degree completion. And this addresses that,” she said.
And even more importantly, preliminary data show that students who are awarded a reverse-transfer associate degree are slightly more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree. Ted Bland, the reverse-transfer coordinator at the Maricopa Community Colleges, found that 89 percent of students who retroactively earned an associate degree went on to get a bachelor’s degree, compared with 85 percent who did not get the two-year degree.
Overall, since 2015, the Maricopa system has awarded nearly 800 reverse-transfer associate degrees to students at Arizona universities. This summer, Bland expects to award a 500th associate degree to an ASU student.
The program is beneficial because the students will have a degree in hand if they apply for internships or scholarships or need to “stop out” of school in order to work, he said.
“Students who had been in dropout status from a university and now have an associate degree are then more eligible to re-enroll,” he said. “So it works for students whose attendance is not interrupted but it also helps those who have to stop out, who are more commonly older students.”
Every step in the postsecondary education process is reflected in earnings. People who have some college but no degree had an average annual salary of $41,700 while those with an associate degree had an average salary of $46,000, according to a 2015 report by the College Board. The average salary for holders of a bachelor’s degree was $61,400. High school graduates earned an average $36,800.
Reverse transfer is free and easy for the students, many of whom don’t even realize they’ve earned the associate degree until they get an email about it.
ASU started working on a reverse-transfer process more than five years ago.
“We started to think about what we could be doing to help students achieve their associate degree because the research was pretty clear that if students can achieve these milestones along the way to the bachelor’s degree, it incents them to continue going,” Hesse said.
According to the 2015 U.S. census, one in five adults in America has some college credit but no degree. But by 2020, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require a college education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Nationwide, reverse transfer began to pick up steam about five years ago, when the Lumina Foundation gave out grants to institutions in several states to set up pilot programs. More than 20,000 associate degrees were awarded by more than 500 institutions in 17 states, including Arizona, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Nearly 2,000 people returned to college — some decades after leaving — to finish the degrees they were so close to achieving.
Reverse transfer also benefits the community colleges, which have faced questions about their graduation rate. The 10 colleges in the Maricopa County district had a six-year graduation rate of 21 percent for students who started in 2011. In the Maricopa system, reverse transfer retroactively increased the number of associate degrees awarded by nearly 3 percentage points for the 2016–17 academic year, Bland said.
“We started to think about what we could be doing to help students achieve their associate degree because the research was pretty clear that if students can achieve these milestones along the way to the bachelor’s degree, it incents them to continue going.”
— Maria Hesse, vice provost for academic partnerships at ASU
While the process is painless for students, it’s labor intensive behind the scenes. ASU’s technology is able to automatically flag which transcripts might be eligible for reverse transfer and then send them back to the community colleges. The ASU system finds students who have completed between 15 and 70 credit hours from an Arizona community college, and between 30 and 60 ASU credit hours, with the total credits between 60 and 100.
Once the transcript gets to the community college, the process of manually auditing each student’s coursework is like putting together a puzzle, according to Bland. This is because students might change majors multiple times or attend several different colleges.
“As they move around, those puzzle pieces don’t fit together as neatly as they once would have 30 years ago, when much of the higher education architecture was put into place,” he said.
Bland not only combs over the courses to make sure they fulfill the requirements for an associate degree, he also will tell students what courses they are missing so they know what to take to complete the degree. That’s how Allie Dake received her associate in arts degree from Rio Salado College last fall.
“I found out about the program from an email and wondered what I needed to get an associate, and I found out I only needed one class,” said Dake, who will be a senior at ASU in the fall. She had accumulated many credits from Rio Salado through dual enrollment while she was in high school.
Dake took a communications class, which completed her associate degree. She is spending this summer applying to medical school, which she hopes to attend after graduating from ASU with degrees in biochemistry and psychology in 2019.
“So it’ll be cool to have three degrees in four years,” she said.
Hesse said that ASU will soon look at leveraging its technological prowess to improve the process.
“We’re kind of ahead of the game in terms of doing this work, but it’s still very labor intensive,” she said. “We’d like to think about some ideas for how technology might help us streamline it even more.”
One obstacle to reverse transfer is data privacy. Students must give permission for their universities to share academic records with their community colleges. Typically, the opt-in rate for this is extremely low.
“What we learned pretty quickly by looking at the data is that when students are doing admissions forms, they’re not reading all that fine print. We were not getting many permissions,” Hesse said. “We tried doing several email campaigns to promote it and we got very low response rates.”
ASU has overcome this hurdle for one group of students: People who register for one of the designated degree tracks, such as the Maricopa-ASU Pathway Program, or MAPP, are automatically signed up to be considered for reverse transfer. Students outside of a pathway program who want to investigate reverse transfer can visit the website.
“There’s almost no downside … to allow the university to send your information back to your community college,” Hesse said.
Although the number of students who transfer to ASU with an associate degree has been trending upward, there are many reasons why people leave two-year colleges before completing, Hesse said.
The main reason is that the coursework offered at some of the colleges isn’t broad enough, particularly for more specialized majors.
“If you live in Show Low and are attending Northland Pioneer College, they don’t have a journalism program. You could do general studies but you would run out of classes that would apply to the journalism degree, and you don’t want to waste money on courses that don’t shorten the time to degree completion,” she said.
Engineering and architecture are two common majors in which students transfer before completing an associate degree.
“Although many community colleges will have physics and calculus courses, only a few have the full breadth of freshman and sophomore courses that would parallel what the university is offering,” she said.
Another reason is timing.
“We interviewed students to try to get a better understanding of why, if we have these programs in place that incentivize you to finish, you’re leaving your community college six credits short of a degree,” she said. “The range of answers was stunning.”
Some students want to make sure they start at ASU in the fall semester, she said, and others don’t want to stay at their community college part-time to complete only a handful of credits.
“They’d say things like, ‘I had an offer to become a roommate in an apartment with another guy I wanted to live with, so I decided to leave.’"
Houx said he loved the small class sizes and close relationships with faculty at Gateway, which he attended for three semesters, but the GI Bill will cover his tuition no matter where he goes.
“I knew the university had so many great research resources and facilities, and I needed to go for that.”