Getting into college is unfortunately much easier than getting out with a diploma. Even among first-time, full-time undergrads — a demographic that's more likely to reach graduation than students who attend part-time — less than 60 percent earn their bachelors degree within six years, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. That leaves many students with some college credits but no degree to show for it. A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that about 31 million students fall into this category and among them, about 3.5 million have at least two full years worth of college credits. There are ways to make those credits work in your favor; while some aim to provide a more clear-cut path for adult students wondering how to go back to college, others simply reward degrees retroactively to those who have enough credits. Here are a few options for students who started college but didn't graduate.
1. Retroactive Credentialing
If you pursued a four-year degree and stopped before attaining your goal but after earning enough credits for a lesser degree or certificate, you may be qualified for retroactive credentialing. Designed for students who have substantial credits, retroactive credentialing or "reverse transfer" programs comb through student transcripts to figure out if they've already qualified for a degree, diploma or certificate. If the student is close but not quite there, some initiatives also provide information on what the student needs to do to finish their degree. Connecticut's Go Back to Get Ahead program even goes so far as to offer free college courses at public colleges and universities for students with old credits who return to the classroom.
"About 80 percent of the students who transfer from a community college to a university transfer without an associate's degree. That's a large proportion," says Jason Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Utah and co-principal investigator of research for Credit When It's Due, a grant program aimed at improving retroactive credentialing programs nationwide. "Only about 20 percent have an associate's degree at the time of transfer. That's important because that tells us that there's a large percentage of students who could potentially benefit."
Some schools have initiatives providing incoming students with a review of credits earned in the past and information on whether they're eligible for a retroactive degree.
Retroactive credentialing programs come in a couple different flavors, and policies vary significantly between programs. Some are operated through individual four-year colleges and universities who maintain partnerships with nearby community colleges. These initiatives provide incoming students with a review of credits earned in the past and information on whether they're eligible for a retroactive degree. Some two-year institutions have their own programs while certain states are also pushing towards implementing retroactive credentialing initiatives on a larger scale.
Many institutions that have reverse transfer programs maintain websites explaining program policies. To figure out if you qualify for a retroactive degree, Taylor suggests reaching out to the two and four-year institutions you attended to see what's available.
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2. Transfer Your Credits
If you're ready to finish that degree, the credit you've already earned could chop a significant amount of time off your college tenure, but how much depends largely on the institution, says Jeff Fuller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. While some schools readily accept older credits, others have more stringent policies. It's not uncommon for students to lose a full semester, or even a year's worth of credits, when transferring.
"A lot of institutions that are large institutions that have heavy transfer populations have tools and systems on their webpages where students can plug in courses they've taken previously and get a rough idea of how those courses could articulate into a university," he says.
But be sure to read the fine print. Just because a course transfers from one school to the next, that doesn't mean it will automatically apply towards your major. Courses awarded as "elective" or "general education" credit will fulfill the required credit hours towards your degree, but won't substitute for any classes within your major. Even courses that seem like they should readily transfer over may not if the school you're transferring into has different learning requirements within that subject Fuller says. If, for example, you took an introductory biology course at one school, but the course was structured for students who aren't majoring in science, a new institution may not apply those credits towards a biology major. "The first step is awarding the credit to the student," Fuller says. "The second step is seeing which credits fit into their academic degree plan."
Before going back to school, experts encourage those with older college credits to do some research on where they can get the most mileage from their past college experiences.
Judith Brauer, acting assistant director for the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia, encourages those with older college credits to do some research on where they can get the most mileage from their past college experiences. That means asking institutions to evaluate their past transcripts and trying to negotiate if a school won't award credit for a course the student believes should transfer.
"Don't be afraid to push or to ask if something could be re-evaluated…We really encourage students to wait until they hear no at least three times before you give up," Brauer says, adding that students should make sure that their credits are being evaluated by someone within the academic department of their major. To help with the negotiations, Brauer also suggests providing a course syllabus and contact information for the faculty member who taught the class or classes in question.
3. Turn College Experience Into Work or Life Experience
If you can't transfer your old college classes directly over to a new institution, you may be able to receive placement credit for them. If the material is fresh in your mind, ask the school if you can test out by either taking the school's own placement test or by receiving an acceptable score on a College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) test in that subject. According to the College Board, CLEP test scores are currently accepted by about 2,900 colleges and universities, though schools individually determine which scores and which subjects they'll accept.
A growing number of institutions also offer college credit for life or work experience, which could be a good option for those who have used the skills learned in past college courses in their daily jobs. Schools with competency-based curriculums are oftentimes willing to eliminate a full semester or year's worth of classes for students who have significant work experience and can prove their skills, but many institutions don't offer credit for life or work experience at all. Jeff Fuller says that school policies on granting life or work experience credits may also vary from major to major. For example, if a student is pursuing a degree in an emerging technology field with a high work demand, a school "may be able to allow more students the flexibility to use work experience in lieu of academic coursework," in that circumstance, he says.
School websites usually provide information on each institution's policies on life or work experience credit, but a quick phone call can be a more direct route to finding out how those policies apply to you in particular, says Judith Brauer.
"Make sure you're talking to the right person who has that expertise," she says. "It is relatively new for campuses, but we're finding more and more that schools are becoming aware."
1. "Fast Facts," National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40
2. "Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion," National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, p. 4,
3. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, http://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/NSC_Signature_Report_7.pdf
4. Information on Connecticut's Go Back to Get Ahead program: https://www.gobacktogetahead.com/
5. Jason Taylor, Ph.D., Assistant professor at the University of Utah & co-principal investigator of research for Credit When It's Due, Interviewed by the author on Feb. 23, 2015
6. Jeff Fuller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Interviewed by the author Feb. 18, 2015
7. Judith Brauer, acting assistant director for the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia, Interviewed by the author Feb. 20, 2015
8. Information on the College Board's CLEP exams: https://clep.collegeboard.org/