Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Free to Finish

I tip my cap to Washington State for one of the smartest low-cost ideas for college completion I’ve seen in a long time.  

It’s in the process of passing a “Free to Finish” bill, by which former students who left college within 15 or fewer credits of the finish line a chance to finish for free.  Students have to have been out of college for at least three years.  This must be their first degree -- sorry, grad students -- and I assume the college in question must have been accredited.  From the way the Washington Post piece is written, it sounds like the original college(s) can be anywhere in America.  

Details matter, yes, but from here it looks like a terrific idea.  

Adults who stopped just short of a degree often have the skills, but lack the credential to get past the first hiring screen.  They get stuck in jobs below their capabilities (or frozen out of jobs entirely).  It wouldn’t take much to get them over the hump, but if they’re struggling to make ends meet, coming back for the few extra credits may be economically prohibitive.  No promotion without a degree, but no money for a degree without the promotion.  And this is not a trivial number of people.

Washington state is offering to cover the tuition for up to 15 credits, assuming that most students will be completing Associate’s degrees.  

Most places can’t do that at scale, and not just for financial reasons.  Colleges usually have “residency” requirements that don’t refer to where a student lives; they refer to where courses were taken.  If you transfer 90 percent of your degree credits to Laurel State from Hardy State, Laurel State might argue that you aren’t really their graduate.  But some states have colleges set up to be lenient on “residency,” so someone who just needs those last nine credits will be fine.  

Assessing older transcripts can be a task, too.  Curricula evolve over time, so taking courses from a ten year old transcript and applying them to current programs of study will involve some research and judgment calls.  (That’s especially true in areas like advanced math, where “use it or lose it” is real.)  It’s work worth doing, and most community colleges do at least some of that now.  But if tuition is suddenly free, and there’s an influx of students who fit that profile, the registrar’s offices in Washington State should gear up.

The cost to the state could be somewhat understated if some of the folks who come back for Associate’s degrees stick around for Bachelor’s, but I consider that a reasonable risk.  As disasters go, “oh, no! People are beating down the doors for education!” strikes me as a good one.  I’ll take that disaster.

The more likely outcome, I suspect, will be that some frustrated and occupationally stuck adults will take the opportunity to get their hands stamped, to move up in their careers, and to get a lingering frustration resolved.  For the cost of less than one semester of a community college, that’s a staggeringly good return on investment.  Well played, Washington.