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Democratic wish list includes billions to help students finish their degrees

Democratic wish list includes billions to help students finish their degrees

The Hechinger Report

Olivia Sanchez
October 1, 2021
Administrators at Alabama’s Bishop State Community College had a goal: Reenroll some of the 800 students who had recently completed some coursework but never finished their degree.
Victoria Perry, a counselor and adviser, was excited by the prospect of reaching students whose education had been disrupted. But she and her colleagues soon realized that without technology to aid them in identifying who those students were and the barriers they faced, the work would have to be done by hand.
And so a team of nine staff members from across the college began adding student after student to a shared, color-coded Google Docs spreadsheet —​​ a manual audit of more than 800 students who’d been gone for at least three consecutive semesters. The laborious process took Perry, a college employee of more than 24 years, away from her regular work and left the team with what felt like an impossible task that ultimately went unfinished.
The effort would have been helped by a proposed $9 billion in federal funding dedicated to completion and retention included in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. Advocates say the money could be transformative for colleges like Bishop State, which often lack the resources to give students the support they need, and people like Perry, who are trying to do this work without 21st century tools.
Though the proposed fund is backed by a scores of higher ed experts, it’s competing for funding against a multitude of other programs.
If it’s included in the reconciliation package, it could fund programs like Degrees When Due, the umbrella initiative organized by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that Bishop State was participating in to reenroll students. The initiative is designed to help the 36 million Americans who have attended some college but haven’t earned a degree.
It’s one of dozens of evidence-based programs that could be implemented at more public schools across the country if the completion money comes through from Congress.
Without funding, the work at places like Bishop State can only go so far.
Perry said the college reached out to about 200 students and reenrolled about 70. But the progress stalled at the beginning of the pandemic, and then the college changed internal systems that left staff members without access to much of the student information they needed to complete the audit.
Perry said she wished they’d had the money to invest in a system that could automatically analyze why a student left school and how many credits they needed to complete. Maybe, she said, the college could even acquire a program that could send students an initial email or text message to gauge their interest in returning. If they’d had a program like that, Perry said, her staff might have been able to contact roughly 600 more students about reenrollment in this attempted audit alone.
“We weren’t able to tackle the vast majority of students because of technology,” Perry said. “It was just unbelievable. I was so excited when I first started out but it became kind of depressing because we couldn’t help them.”
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