UNC initiative aims to help former students earn their undergraduate degrees

It was a bittersweet moment when Isaac Smith attended his 50th anniversary reunion at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University last year.

While he enjoyed visiting with his former classmates, Smith said he felt incomplete because they had earned their diplomas and he hadn’t. While attending North Carolina A&T from 1962 to 1966, Smith joined the Army and went to Vietnam before he finished.

“I didn’t feel whole because I didn’t earn my degree,” he said. “There are very few things in life I’ve started which I didn’t also finish.”

Smith has stayed a lifelong supporter of North Carolina A&T and saw that the university had begun offering a degree-completion program for Partway Home students called “Aggies at the Goal Line” – former students who had earned at least 90 hours of credits but for whatever reason, were unable to complete their degree program before stopping out.

Now 72 and retired, Smith found himself with a lot of free time on his hands and decided to enroll. It took a while for the university to track down his records, but he said he’s now on his way to completing his final 26 credits and hopes to graduate in December with a bachelor’s in liberal arts.

“I think they’ve treated me very fairly,” Smith said. “I’m more than happy to be readmitted.”

A statewide concern

Currently, there are more than an estimated 1.1 million adults in North Carolina who have some college credit, but don’t hold an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Higher education institutions often refer to those students as “stop outs” – students who at some point paused their academic careers, often due to circumstances such as military service, family obligations, financial or health issues. The North Carolina General Assembly has shown a commitment to helping “Partway Home” students finish their degree . It authorized $2.3 million to the UNC system to develop strategies and technology support to serve these students, recruit them to re-enroll and to move them successfully to a degree. In turn, the legislature hopes a better educated population provides a stronger workforce and socioeconomic benefits to the state.

While Smith was lucky during his career, achieving supervisory roles with companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical working in automation engineering, most North Carolinians struggle to find work or advance in their careers without a college diploma.

Tonya Dixon is another “Aggies at the Goal Line” student now taking online classes for a liberal arts degree. In the 1990s, she left school to attend the funeral of a close family member and never returned. As the years went by, she made a promise to her grandfather to finish her degree, and as her daughter grew, Dixon knew it was time to earn a degree. She said, “ I told my daughter that I would finish college before she did. And so, she’s just pushing me and I’ve been pushing myself because I want to make this change.”

Dixon’s daughter isn’t the only one pushing her. Carliss Lee Jacobs, the Aggies at the Goal Line coordinator is too. Dixon remarked, “When I tell you she is phenomenal,  I mean it. If it wasn’t for her, I would not have re-enrolled because she was like ‘come on you can do this, let me show you the classes. I really, really appreciate her.”

With her daughter now attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dixon says they look at education as a team. “She calls to see if I’m doing my homework and gets excited that we’re both doing something together. And now we’re both thinking about pursuing a master’s degree.”

Dixon said that her coursework is helping her see her work in healthcare regulatory affairs in a new light. She enjoys the new perspective and how it contributes to her understanding of clients and their issues.

System Commitment

“People are working longer, changing careers more often, and looking to higher education for new opportunities. North Carolina is growing older and more diverse, meaning that more students than ever will be exploring college opportunities outside the traditional path,” said UNC President Margaret Spellings. “We already have more than a million North Carolinians with college credit but no college degree, and we should do everything we can to fulfill the promise of higher education for those students.”

State funding will emphasize five areas: data analysis and market research; retention strategy and technology pilots; development of innovative course and curriculum delivery; and collaborative program models.

“The focus of this effort is to increase degree attainment in North Carolina,” said Samantha McAuliffe-Raynor, director of special projects and strategic assessment. “Ultimately, we want to ensure that all citizens of the state have access to a relevant, high-quality and affordable degree and that we’re supporting adult learners in ways that recognize their unique needs and provide an equitable experience to that of our traditional-age students.”

Many UNC system campuses – such as North Carolina A&T, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central University, Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Fayetteville State University – have programs in place that exclusively or primarily serve Partway Home students and are actively recruiting former students to finish their degree. The campuses have different requirements for re-admitting students, but most of the universities require Partway Home students to have at least 90 credit hours and to have been out of school for a year or more.

Partway Home is one path to achieving one of the goals in the UNC Board of Governors’ Strategic Plan, which includes student success – helping as many students as possible attain a degree.

Because many of the students have been out of school for a while, degree or major requirements may have changed in the ensuing years. Campuses work with the students to maximize progress toward their degree based on their previously earned credit, despite changes to course catalogs or programs.

For example, UNC Charlotte’s 49er Finish – the longest-running Partway Home program in the UNC system, beginning in 2005 – offers students a concierge-style of advising that can help students navigate changes in curriculum. The university works with departments on how to help returning students maximize use of their credits.

UNC Charlotte began the program by sending out surveys to students who had stopped out of the university to see how many were interested in pursuing their degrees once more. Janet Daniel, UNC Charlotte’s director of 49er Finish, said the university has reached out to about 2,500 students who stopped out. Since 49er Finish began, about 730 students have received their degrees. Many of the students who stopped out had gotten jobs, which is why they stopped attending college, but were unable to advance their careers or change jobs without a college degree.

One of those UNC Charlotte students who earned his degree through 49er Finish  was James Williams, who graduated last December with a bachelor’s in criminal justice. Williams, 51, originally attended UNC Charlotte from 1984 to 1989, but left school the first time just four credits short of finishing. He even walked as part of the graduation class that year before learning he hadn’t earned his degree.

When he tried to finish his degree program in 1993, the course requirements had changed and he needed 36 hours to complete it. Recently married and starting a family, college wasn’t an option for him, he said, so he got a job.

While taking his youngest son Jeremy to UNC Charlotte in July 2015 for orientation, Williams learned that he needed to get a copy of his transcript for a new job he had applied for. At the registrar’s office, he was told about the 49er Finish program and that he was closer to a diploma than he thought. Though he ultimately didn’t get the new job, Williams did start on the path of finishing his degree.

“I’ve never been so happy about not getting a job,” Williams said with a chuckle. “I never would have gotten my degree. I was able to take night classes on campus. I didn’t do anything online – the first time around, we didn’t have computers!”

His oldest son, Justin, also attends UNC Charlotte. James and Justin shared a mutual classroom for different classes and would pass each other when the classes changed over.

“I hope I’m a role model for my kids,” he said. “I hope that’s one thing they get out of this. Prior to going back, I never discussed my college experience with them. When I marched in graduation last December, it was a different feeling this time because I had a better understanding of where I stood. But I didn’t feel that closure until I got that diploma through the mail.”

Daniel said she thinks that what officials have learned from 49er Finish will benefit other UNC Charlotte students, noting that as administrators learn what caused Partway Home students to stop out, they can help other undergraduates stay in school and earn their diplomas.

Each program has unique characteristics. North Carolina A&T’s Aggies at the Goal Line program is exclusively online, while East Carolina’s Bachelor of Science in University Studies offers students internship and research opportunities. Some campuses offer scholarships or financial aid to Partway Home students, while Western Carolina’s Finish Line program waives application fees.

Exchanging ideas

The UNC system is sponsoring a convening in Winston-Salem in April. During the two-day event, participants and national experts will explore the challenges of recruiting Partway Home students and helping them finish their degrees.

“As a system, it is important to leverage our diversity, our knowledge, our expertise and experiences,” said Dr. Junius Gonzales, senior vice president of academic affairs. “Our goals for this meeting are to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities surrounding degree completion, share promising practices from across the UNC system and nationally, and to assist constituent universities in crafting pilot strategies and collaborations to serve adult learners.”