Visit Modern Campus

The Colorado Re-Engaged Initiative: Recognizing Learning for Non-Credential Students

Giving credit for learning in its various forms to non-credential students sets them up for greater professional success.

What happens when college students complete many courses and acquire learning but leave college before they graduate? Mostly they leave with no formal recognition of their learning—no credential—and have only a college transcript that lists their courses—a transcript most employers cannot use to determine the specific skills and knowledge students possess.

A credential stands for learning—and there are many types of credentials—certificates, microcredentials, degrees and licenses. Without a credential, many students are hampered when seeking jobs or trying to advance their careers.

For decades, there has been a movement to grant associate degrees through a reverse transfer process. The degree is awarded in this way when a community college student transfers to a university and subsequently acquires learning that qualifies him or her for an associate degree—typically 60 or 70 college credits. The university notifies the sending community college, and the college assesses the student’s record and awards the associate degree retroactively. If the student ultimately leaves the university before completing the bachelor’s degree, he or she still has a college credential that adds value and can help them meet their goals.

Twenty-five states have reverse transfer policies set in legislation, board policy or memorandums of agreement. Though reverse transfer degrees have been tested for more than a decade in many states, community colleges and universities, no similar option has typically been available to students who begin at a four-year institution. Such students can move through their four-year institution and acquire well over 60 credit hours without gaining an associate degree. And if these students leave before completing the bachelor’s degree, they have no credential to show for their learning.

Why the discrepancy between community colleges and four-year institutions on this issue? One reason is policy: In many states, statute prohibits four-year institutions from offering sub-baccalaureate credentials. Changes are afoot to address this.

Screenshot 2024-03-08 at 4.08.30 PM

Credential As You Go—a national movement seeking to develop a universally adopted incremental credentialing system—has developed an Incremental Credential Framework to guide its work. Three states—Colorado, North Carolina and New York—are testing the framework. One of the components of the framework is Retro As You Go, in which incremental credentials are awarded for learning already acquired but not yet credentialed.

Retro work in Colorado has taken two forms. In one, two institutions within the Colorado State University System (Pueblo and Global) are reviewing transcripts of students who stop out just short of a bachelor’s degree. The goal is to see if such students have fulfilled the requirements for one or more certificate programs without knowing or without applying for an award. How can institutions be more proactive in awarding these credentials as students earn them (rather than relying on students to monitor their own records and apply for credentials)? Institutions are also looking for patterns in the courses students are taking and the knowledge and skills these courses provide. Institutions might validate this value-seeking behavior and develop credentials in response, so students can receive formal recognition of the learning they’ve acquired.

Colorado also passed legislation (House Bill 21–1330) to enable all its public four-year higher education institutions to award an earned associate degree to students who stop out short of earning a bachelor’s. The Colorado Re-Engaged (CORE) Initiative enables the state’s four-year institutions to award an associate degree to eligible students who have stopped out from a baccalaureate program after earning at least 70 credit hours. In enacting the supporting legislation, the Colorado Legislature recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic forced many students, particularly those from low-income communities, to stop attending the state’s colleges and universities before obtaining a bachelor’s degree. These stop-out students have invested a significant amount of time and money to advance their knowledge and skills through higher education but lack an academic credential to reflect this investment.

Data the Colorado Department of Higher Education gathered show that over 25,000 Coloradans may be eligible for an associate degree under CORE. By offering qualifying stop-out students (students who stopped out up to ten years before the current semester) an earned associate degree for credits they already completed, institutions participating in CORE can:

  • Help degree recipients obtain higher-paying jobs and more secure employment, which will improve economic prospects for these former students and their communities
  • Increase the number of Coloradans with academic credentials and degrees, which will strengthen the state’s workforce and support its economic recovery
  • Better position degree recipients to return to higher education to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher

Colleges and universities currently implementing CORE include:

  • Colorado State University Fort Collins
  • Colorado State University Pueblo
  • Fort Lewis College
  • Metropolitan State University of Denver
  • University of Colorado Colorado Springs
  • University of Colorado Denver
  • University of Northern Colorado

Reporters Marshall Zelinger and Antonia Velez from KUSA-TV Denver investigated early results of this new policy at Metropolitan State University of Denver. On December 21, 2023, the university emailed 3,900 students who had stopped out of a bachelor’s program up to ten years before the current semester but had earned at least 70 credits before stopping out. As of January 5, 2024, of the first 700 former students to open the email, 311 (44%) opted to receive an associate degree, and more than 120 (18%) asked for more information about returning to the university to get back on track for their bachelor’s.

Recently, the University of Colorado Denver awarded nearly 70 associate degrees to students who met the requirements of the board of regents’ newly approved associate of general studies degree programs at University of Colorado Colorado Springs and University of Colorado Denver.

Why do these retro awards matter? The research data have fueled interest in retro degrees because workers with associate degrees earn more than those with just a high school diploma. Associate degrees have value, yet many students who have acquired the learning equivalent to an associate degree are unaware of that fact. And until recently, there has been no way to award them the degree.

Thankfully, that is changing. Pathways to meaningful credentials are widening. Colorado’s groundbreaking CORE legislation is enabling recognition of significant learning for many students attending the state’s four-year institutions. We have much to learn from Colorado about fairness—to students who start at community colleges and who start at four-year institutions—and they all deserve recognition for their learning at key increments along the way to help them achieve success in their education and career journeys.

To learn more about Colorado’s CORE Initiative, visit