Published on 2016/03/30
The EvoLLLution | Creating Pathways to Re-Entry and Completion: The Finish Line
Institutions need to turn their attention to creating re-entry pathways for the massive demographic of Americans who have some college experience but no degree if they are serious about hitting the 60 percent attainment goal.

The demand for a well educated workforce has never been higher than it is today. Regional, state and national employers continue to develop new job opportunities but require a workforce holding postsecondary credentials to help them execute the initiatives and achieve profitability. Preparing employees for the workforce is vital to economic development and even more so in areas that are still in recovery from a displaced workforce in the steel, mining, auto, and oil and gas industries.

Taking cues from the Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation Report: Goal 2025 and regional economic development partners, California University of Pennsylvania launched a degree completion program, The Finish Line, to impact the quality of graduates entering the workforce in the region, the state and beyond. This piece explores the importance of the program and its approach to addressing the demand for an educated and prepared workforce.

The Impact of Cal U’s The Finish Line Program On Workforce Development

The United States is currently ranked 11th in the developed world in degree completion rates and is seriously trailing for young adults 25-34.

The Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation Report: Goal 2025 shows that 25 of the most populous metropolitan regions in the U.S. fell short of the national goal of 60 percent degree attainment by anywhere from 5 to 33 percent. Even more discouragingly, in our home state of Pennsylvania and in our oil- and gas-producing regions, degree attainment rates are some of the lowest in the nation at just over 40 percent. Less than half of Pennsylvania’s 6.7 million working adults have an associate or bachelor’s degree.

If our regional, state and national workforce is looking for continuous economic improvement, now is the time to make strides to create more effective and efficient pathways to degree completion.

The Need for Programming That Creates Effective Pathways to Degree Completion

More and more industries are requiring their employees to possess some type of postsecondary credential, whether it is a certificate, certification, associate or bachelor’s (or even a master’s!) degree. In Pennsylvania alone, 3.4 million working adults have some college credits but no degree or credential. Again, that’s more than half of our entire state workforce! Nationally, of the approximately 166 million individuals in our workforce, about 80 million individuals find themselves in the same position.

If we as a nation are looking to keep high-paying, high-economic impact industries alive and well, the American workforce needs to seriously consider how education impacts workforce development. We know that many individuals in this situation do not have the ability to focus solely on education; oftentimes they are balancing their educational needs with the demands of work and family. So at Cal U we developed a program tailored for non-traditional students—a program that afforded working adults the opportunity to achieve their educational goals.

Developing and Executing The Finish Line Initiative

After conducting the research, we developed a strategic plan to identify high-demand programs and align them with Pennsylvania’s high-priority occupations, regional workforce development needs and enrollment data from Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. This plan led to the development of 13 associate and bachelor’s degree completion programs that could be offered 100-percent online, in addition to the university’s more than 130 existing undergraduate programs.

The plan targeted for readmission of Cal U stop-outs with some credits but no degree, prospects with some credits but no degree, prospects with an associate but no bachelor’s degree, and prospects with a bachelor’s but no master’s degree. A three-pronged outreach plan was then developed and executed to engage these prospects to discuss how we could help them achieve their goal of degree completion.

Phase Two of the strategic plan is to engage key community colleges and the other state system universities in a “Preferred Pathways Partnership Program” to further impact degree completion and workforce development in the region and across the state of Pennsylvania.

The Benefits of The Finish Line For Individuals

Since the launch of The Finish Line initiative, we have begun to learn why many students are unable to complete a degree. Reasons for putting education on hold include work-life balance issues, family tragedy, job loss, loss of interest and motivation, declining job demand, limited family support, financial hardship, and military deployment. For these reasons, many individuals found themselves in a place where they could not afford to stop working and commit to education full time. As time passed, many of these former students realized that without a degree, it would be more challenging to break the cycle of low-paying jobs and unstable employment.

The Finish Line initiative was designed to enable the participants to balance employment and family obligations while finishing the degree. By offering an efficient route to graduation, the program reduced returning students’ financial burden, increased the likelihood of persistence from term to term, and enabled them to finish sooner and, ultimately, graduate. Additionally, they were able to utilize resources such as Cal U’s Career and Professional Development Center and become a part of an alumni network that exceeds 55,000, thereby enhancing their opportunities for career entry, enhancement and advancement.

Our outreach inspired these individuals at a time in their lives when they needed a solution most and compelled them to take action to impact their future. Excitingly, those who engaged with Cal U and explored their degree completion options often decided to begin the journey to complete their degree. Our successes are measured by the outcomes of those who completed their degree. One of our students, Eric, was just three credits shy of graduating when his father passed away from cancer and he decided to withdraw from school. When he received our Finish Line outreach he decided to return to finish what he started. After consulting with our Finish Line coaches and advisers, he was readmitted to Cal U for the winter term and successfully completed his bachelor’s degree in Professional Golf Management. Reflecting on his experience, he told us, “It was really convenient. … I can do it online and still be effective in the workplace without taking days or time off.” Eric is just one of more than 150 students that has returned to continue along the path to degree completion since the launch of the initiative in late 2015.

How The Finish Line Is Breaking Down Barriers To Re-Entry And Completion

Our greatest assets at Cal U are our people and our Cal U Cares philosophy. We’ve engaged dedicated Finish Line coaches and Finish Line advisers who are prepared to help students reduce or eliminate the obstacles that would have prevented degree completion. We’ve worked to maximize transfer credit and to grant credit for prior learning/work experience in order to shorten time to completion. Additionally, we provided guided, one-stop support to enable the student to focus on academic attainment and work-life balance while we facilitated the enrollment process. This approach minimized and often eliminated obstacles that otherwise might have deterred individuals from finishing what they started.

By leveraging the resources of this initiative, we have begun to develop partnerships with employers and other educators who also want to provide training and educational opportunities for the workforce. At the end of the day, what matters most is that we continue to promote degree literacy. Contributions that result in achieving the national degree attainment goal of 60 percent by 2025 equate to a successful outcome! Cal U is proud to be well on the way.

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