News & Events / “Lighting the Path” to Promote Equity in Postsecondary Attainment by Identifying Barriers to Completion and Reengaging Stopped-Out Students

“Lighting the Path” to Promote Equity in Postsecondary Attainment by Identifying Barriers to Completion and Reengaging Stopped-Out Students

Published May 02, 2022

IHEP’s latest report shares findings and lessons learned from Degrees When Due, a nationwide completion initiative to reengage students and build institutional capacity.

WASHINGTON, DC (May 2, 2022) – Higher education is the surest pathway to a better living and a better life. Yet, the goal of a valuable college credential goes unrealized for too many students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Today, more than 36 million [NOTE: research released May 10, 2022 puts the current number at 39 million] Americans have some college credit, but no awarded degree and, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the studies of even more students, deepening inequities that already are pervasive. For instance, Black, Latinx and/or Hispanic, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students are 30 percent more likely than White students to need to stop out before completing a degree. In many cases, these students have taken on the debt of higher education expenses but do not see the economic and non-economic benefits that a degree or credential can provide.

In 2018, IHEP launched its Degrees When Due (DWD) initiative to identify barriers to college completion, reengage the “some college, no degree” (SCND) population, and promote equitable postsecondary attainment. Today, IHEP released the results of that nationwide work in Lighting the Path to Remove Systemic Barriers in Higher Education and Award Earned Postsecondary Credentials through IHEP’s Degrees When Due Initiative. Over the course of more than three years, with support from the research team at the University of Utah, IHEP built institutional capacity at nearly 200 institutions from 23 states to award degrees to students who have earned them, reengage former students who have stopped out, and equip students with credentials that help them realize their postsecondary goals.

“Higher education offers a path to workplace advancement, economic security, and social mobility – but only if students are able to cross the completion finish line. For too long and for too many, that finish line has felt like a tight-rope,” said IHEP President and CEO, Mamie Voight. “Over the past several years, and in the midst of a pandemic, no less, our Degrees When Due state and institutional partners have taken equity-centered and data-informed approaches to support today’s students as well as tomorrow’s by identifying and reengaging stopped-out students, and identifying and removing the barriers that made them stop out in the first place. Promoting equity in degree attainment requires meeting students where they are, recognizing where the system has failed them, and doing the work to not only reenroll but to reengage students and support them across the degree finish line. We’re incredibly proud of our DWD partners and celebrate with them and with the students who have now been awarded the credentials they worked so hard to earn.”

Lighting the Path sets forth key findings on barriers to reenrollment, persistence, and completion; outlines strategies to best support returning students; and offers recommendations for policymakers at every level—institutional, state, and federal—to promote equitable degree completion.

“Nearly one in ten students who received a degree audit through DWD had already met the requirements for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but that degree was never conferred,” noted Piper Hendricks, IHEP’s Vice President of Communications and External Affairs. “For many SCND students, the only barrier between them and their degree was not a matter of learning or skill development, but rather a bureaucratic matter like incomplete paperwork or holds on their accounts. For others, balancing work and family, navigating complicated degree and transfer pathways, and dealing with prohibitive financial burdens put completion out of reach. These challenges and barriers weigh heaviest on today’s students, including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, and working and parenting students. Degree auditing, returning adult reengagement, and reverse transfer should be a part of every institutional, system, and state effort to increase educational attainment and ensure more equitable outcomes.”

DWD followed years of IHEP’s leadership on adult student reengagement and built on the degree reclamation work of two multi-state completion initiatives: Project Win-Win and Credit When It’s Due. The DWD initiative underscores the need for sustained commitment to and investment in degree completion in order to realize the full potential of higher education for individuals, families, communities, and society.

The DWD initiative began in 2018 with support from Ascendium Education Group, ECMC Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and Lumina Foundation to build expertise, capacity, and infrastructure on campuses to get students back on track and across the completion finish line.