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The number of college-degree holders in Wisconsin soon will increase, thanks to a grant awarded to the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Graduation Project.

What began in 2004 as a small pilot project has evolved into a full-time program focused on helping UW Oshkosh students who had stopped out to return and complete the requirements for their degree.

The grant will allow for Phase II of the program, which will expand one of the nation’s oldest Graduation Project to include students who stopped out within 15 credits of completing an associate degree.

Funding for the project came from the Committee on Baccalaureate Expansion (COBE), which recommends cost-effective and collaborative strategies to provide opportunities and access to higher education in UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System. The funding underscores the Wisconsin Growth Agenda’s goal of increasing the number of college graduates in Wisconsin.

According to Laurie Ahrens, outreach specialist for the Graduation Project, the University has worked with more than 500 students since the program started in 2004. Of those 500, 182 have graduated, and 69 currently are enrolled in a baccalaureate program.

During Phase I, the Graduation Project targeted students who left the University for at least one semester and had 90 or more credits.

“The Associate degree track will parallel the baccalaureate track,” said Ruth Freiburger, director of the Adult Nontraditional Student Resource (ANSR) Office, which oversees the Graduation Project. “Our focus is on expansion. Not only are we contacting qualifying students who have dropped out, but also we are talking with students who are here but need to leave the University.”

Freiburger said that these students have left the University for a wide variety of personal reasons, including financial or health-related issues.

“We are sensitive to why they left, and we are helping them transition to come back,” Freiburger said.

Helping students achieve their degrees

When sophomore Colleen Monroe left UW Oshkosh in 1993, it was because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to do. Facing many questions and options, she chose to take a break.

Leaving the University during her sophomore year was a difficult decision. But even harder, Monroe said, was figuring out how to come back 17 years later.

“I wanted to get something out of all of the work that I had done, but I saw too many obstacles. I didn’t know if I would have to retake my classes, I didn’t know if it would fit into my schedule, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” Monroe said.

That was when Monroe connected with the Graduation Project.

“I met with Graduation Project staff, and they laid out a plan for me, step-by-step. They were the driving force to get me back in school,” Monroe said. “When they pulled up my STAR (student academic report) and told me I needed only two courses to complete my associate degree, I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

Monroe currently is in the last semester of the associate degree program, but she said this won’t be her final semester at UW Oshkosh.

“My associate degree is a stepping stone. Yes, I’m doing it for personal fulfillment and to accomplish a goal that’s been hanging out there, but my ultimate plan is to finish what I started and get my bachelor’s degree,” she said.

At the launch of Phase II, UW Oshkosh staff examined the records of more than 2,000 students who stopped out between 2003 and 2009. Of that number, 718 students had left UW Oshkosh in good standing and had not transferred or gone on to earn a degree at a different institution.

“We contacted all of those students at least twice. Those who were within four classes of reaching their associate degree were contacted three times,” Ahrens said.

From the original 700, there have been 16 students reaccepted to UW Oshkosh. Currently, 12 of those students are enrolled in classes, while five students had all of the associate degree requirements completed and were awarded an associate degree in June 2010.

Graduation Project staff are working proactively with the Registrar’s Office to ensure students who stop out understand they may have the option of receiving an associate degree.

“We will be working to identify students who have, are or will be stopping out to help them determine if they have completed the necessary credits to earn an associate degree,” said Registrar Lisa Danielson. “It is important that those students understand their options before they leave the institution.”

Modeling the way

In addition to increasing the number of degree holders in Wisconsin, Phase II of the Graduation Project will include replication assistance to help other colleges and universities in Wisconsin that are interested in developing their own completion projects.

To demonstrate the processes, procedures and mechanics of running a Graduation Project, Freiburger said they will participate at a handful of conferences and work directly with directors and deans.

“If more colleges reached out to ‘stopped out’ students, they would be more likely to come back to finish their degrees,” said Kevin Reilly, president of the UW System. “I am pleased that UW Oshkosh has expanded upon this pilot project and that they are replicating the program across UW System.”

So far, Ahrens and Freiburger have spoken with staff from UW-Whitewater, UW-Sheboygan and Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton about starting or improving their respective versions of the Graduation Project.

“The hope is to replicate the program throughout the whole UW System,” Ahrens said.

A Web site, www.uwosh.edu/go/associate, and helpline, (920) 424-4474, have been created to provide additional details. Former UW Oshkosh students who left the University prior to 2003 and believe they may fit the criteria are encouraged to register their interest.

“UW Oshkosh’s nationally acclaimed Graduation Project represents another example of how the University has aligned itself to respond to the educational, economic, healthcare and leadership needs in the New North region and beyond while also working to ensure that a high-quality education is affordable and accessible,” said Chancellor Richard H. Wells.

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