(THE TENNESSEAN) In an effort to boost college graduation rates, Tennessee universities have rolled out a new plan to help students who transfer out of community colleges get the associate degrees they may still lack.
Under a "reverse transfer" program unveiled today, Tennessee community college students who transfer to four-year colleges in this state without completing their degree will next year have a chance to finish what they started.
The state currently lacks a system for students who transfer from community colleges to receive an associate degree after they arrive at their new four-year school. The new program, though, would allow students to collect that degree credential when requirements are met in pursuit of a bachelor's degree.
"It's all about advancing the numbers of people with post-secondary credentials, and this is an approach that allows us to do that," University of Tennessee System President Joe DiPietro said.
While 2,300 students who transfer each year from community colleges have accumulated 45 of 60 required hours to graduate, officials believe 1,300 of them would become eligible for an associate degree.
State officials say two-year degrees are valuable in the pursuit of jobs — and a "fail-safe" for those who don't ultimately earn a bachelor's degree.
Community colleges would get to count reverse-transfer graduates in their figures. Because a revamped funding formula rewards colleges for higher graduation rates, the program would help two-year institutions financially.
"There is a benefit there," DiPietro said.
The plan, set to fully roll out in the spring of 2015 and involve every public higher institution in Tennessee and some private schools, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam has touted the need to increase the state's number of college graduates through his "Drive to 55" initiative. It aims to increase the share of Tennesseans with bachelor's or associate degrees to 55 percent by 2025 to meet workforce demands. Today, only 32 percent have certificates or degrees beyond high school.
The program is a collaboration of the University of Tennessee system, Tennessee Board of Regents, Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association and Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Haslam's 2013 budget included a $300,000 appropriation to partially underwrite startup costs.
Assisting the reverse transfer effort is a two-year grant of nearly $400,000 from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a private foundation that seeks to increase the number of Americans who attend college. Dollars will go toward computer software to automate the review of college credit in order to recognize students who become eligible.
Before the program is fully operating, a pilot run will begin this fall.
Officials say Oregon, Maryland, New Hampshire and Michigan are among the states that have launched or plan to initiate some version of reverse transfer.
"Ours is different because we're trying to do it statewide from the get-go and include not just the public but the private institutions as well," said Katie High, University of Tennessee vice president for academic affairs and student success, who chaired Tennessee's reverse transfer task force.
High said community college transfer students who collect their associate degree have graduation rates that are 10 percent higher at four-year colleges than those who don't. She estimated half of community college transfer students are taking classes part-time, balancing school with work.
"When they get that associate degree, it's like a motivator for them."
In August, Haslam and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean kicked off a new program called "Nashville Achieves," a public-private partnership that aims to offer free tuition to Metro students enrolling at Nashville community colleges. The effort is part of a larger umbrella called tnAchieves that now includes 26 school systems and began in Knoxville.