Colorado students who dropped out of four-year colleges within the past decade could find themselves on the receiving end of associate’s degrees if they meet certain requirements — a first-of-its-kind initiative in the state thanks to recently signed legislation.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education pushed for the legislation, which allows leaders at four-year institutions to decide whether their schools will offer two-year associate’s degrees under narrow circumstances.
If a university agrees and secures the proper approvals, qualifying students must have completed at least 70 credits at that institution within the past 10 years and have been out of college for at least a year, said Chris Rasmussen, the education department’s senior director of academic pathways and innovation.
“Having a degree of some sort, whether an associate’s or bachelor’s, signals to an employer something about commitment, something about follow-through,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a formal recognition by an institution of higher education that certain knowledge and skills have been developed through general education.”
Rasmussen said data shows people with associate’s degrees earn more than those with only a high school diploma — and people with bachelor’s degrees out-earn both.
“We’d also like to re-engage and talk about how we can work together and get back on track for a bachelor’s,” Rasmussen said.
As part of the legislation, the universities agreed not to market their associate’s degrees or recruit students for the program, but instead reach out to students who dropped out and meet the criteria to ask whether they’d like to opt into an associate’s degree.
“I am really encouraged and excited by this,” said Mohamed Abdelrahman, Colorado State University Pueblo’s provost and executive vice president of academic affairs. “As an institution of higher education, it’s not like we are gaining something out of this by having students pay us to earn more credits, so what I’m excited about is that this is a payback to the community. It’s a support.”
Abdelrahman was behind this idea from the get-go after seeing a similar program when he worked in Arkansas, where students working toward their four-year degrees were automatically opted into earning their associate’s degree along the way.
The limited circumstances — students must opt-in rather than opt-out, and participating universities can’t advertise it — surrounding Colorado’s program are in place so that four-year universities don’t compete with the state’s community colleges and institutions that already offer associate’s degrees, including Colorado Mesa University and Adams State University, Rassmussen said.
“We don’t see this as encroaching into our space,” said Landon Pirius, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs at the Colorado Community College System. “We’re trying to be student-focused and not institution-focused, so if this is good for students, we would be supportive.”
The details on which universities plan to take advantage of the new legislation and how those universities would go about reaching out to their former students are largely still being discussed, but Abdelrahman said a cursory review found 5,000 former CSU Pueblo students who might be eligible.
Officials at the University of Northern Colorado said they’re exploring whether the initiative could be implemented on their campus. Representatives of CSU’s Fort Collins campus said they’re interested in dabbling in associate’s degrees.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Rick Miranda, provost at CSU Fort Collins. “They will be able to take that credential into the marketplace and try to use it to upgrade their career aspirations… We hope issuing the credential will, for some students who have the ability to return, make them a little bit more amenable to returning for their next credential. We want to keep encouraging students to continue their education in whatever form that takes.”
Kevin Austin, a 27-year-old Louisville resident, entered the University of Colorado Boulder as a freshman in 2013. By 2015, he felt buried by mental health struggles and couldn’t keep up with his studies. He ended up dropping out after two years of studying film and English.
Austin said he got a “crappy job” at a movie theater and decided to give it the old college try a year after dropping out, re-enrolling to work toward his bachelor’s. Austin left after two semesters.
“Everyone told me I needed to go to college to get a degree and that would give me opportunities, but it just wasn’t working for me,” Austin said. “I couldn’t keep up.”
Now, Austin works at Whole Foods and has been able to move up in a company he enjoys, he said, but he often thinks about going back to finish what he started.
“It’s just an extra thorn in my side,” Austin said. “I don’t have a degree. I just have $10,000 worth of debt. I would love to have something to show for it.”
The idea of being offered an associate’s degree if he completed enough credits is appealing to Austin and would encourage him to start thinking about pursuing his bachelor’s degree again, he said.
Officials at CU Boulder declined to comment when asked if they were exploring implementing the new legislation.
“If I were to do it again, I would be more mindful about what I would study,” Austin said. “I’d look into computer science, math, accounting — something more I can take into an industry or a field. I do think higher education needs to be more accessible.”
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