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To degree, or not to degree


In this economy, that is the question. And so the U is asking.

by Adam Overland

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The U is reaching out to students who didn't quite complete a degree with flexible options, including online learning.

February 8, 2011

Whether it's Shakespeare or soybeans, the Bard or the Bar, a college degree is valuable in today's economy, and it's only becoming more important. For some students who've nearly graduated, a little encouragement from the U of M might be just the nudge they need.

The U is reaching out to some of those students—those who didn't quite complete a degree. The initiative is called GradUate Minnesota, and together with MnSCU, the program will eventually contact thousands of former students.

The U's Digital Campus worked with the Office of Institutional Research to identify students who have at least 90 credits (with 30 or more of those from the U), and who left the University at least two years ago. Through emails, letters, and phone calls, they're being asked to come back to their former degree program or to a more flexible, online learning program that will accommodate life changes, from families to full-time jobs. Billie Wahlstrom, vice provost for distributed education and instructional technology, who leads the initiative, says that the students can expect to be treated with attention and not passed around to random individuals.

"When the Digital Campus hands off the student, it's with a warm handshake—a specific connection to the next person in line to support their return to the U,” says Wahlstrom.

A national priority, a Minnesota win
President Obama has made it a national priority for the U.S. to (again) have the highest proportion of residents with postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020. According to a "Returning to Learning" report from the Lumina Foundation, more than 20 million working Americans have attended some college without actually earning a degree. Another 34 million have no college experience at all—that's 54 million working adults without a college degree—about a third of the U.S. labor force. In order to meet the 2020 goal, the U.S. will need to not only issue new degrees to first-time students, but also bring back former students.

But GradUate Minnesota is also about developing the resources that are already right here in Minnesota—by enhancing the skills and education of the people living and working here now. The state jobs forecast calls for more well-trained workers, and more workers with bachelor's degrees. And as in the past, a highly educated workforce is the key to Minnesota's economy. In the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increase of more than 16 million new jobs in the U.S., with the highest rates of growth in occupations that require some postsecondary education. Occupations in the bachelor’s degree category will grow by about 17 percent, while occupations in the on-the-job training categories will gain just 8 percent.

It's also no secret that having a college degree not only helps in getting a job, but also in keeping a job in a down economy. As Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development research director Steve Hine pointed out in a recent MPR story, the unemployment rate reached just over 10 percent for those with a high school degree, but among those with college or more, the unemployment rate was less than 5 percent. While many struggle with unemployment and look to improve their prospects, a college degree can seem that much more appealing.

The GradUate Minnesota initiative is in an early phase, but it's coming at an opportune moment. Initiated through the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost's Digital Campus initiative, which accommodates learners by coordinating thousands of U courses online, the program partnered with the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) to pilot GradUate Minnesota.

Amanda Rondeau, director of emerging academic technologies under Billie Wahlstrom, says that CFANS provided a manageable first-run. About 90 former students qualified under the initiative's criteria. Of those, says Rondeau, "We connected with 13 percent, and of those, 75 percent are now reconnected with the University in some way, working on completing their degree."

Rondeau says that there are thousands of students who have left the U after completing 90 or more credits—900 from the initial sample years of 2003-05 alone.

She says the next step will be to partner with other colleges, contacting deans and advisers to see if they'd like to participate in reaching students interested in completing their degrees. "GradUate Minnesota requires a close collaboration between our office and the colleges we partner with. We’d like to partner with all colleges and campuses interested in reaching out to former students, but we won't contact any of these students without having first spoken to the dean and advisers," says Rondeau.

For questions about the program, contact the University of Minnesota Digital Campus (umdc@umn.edu, digitalcampus.umn.edu, 1-800-991-8636.