How Michigan adults, college dropouts are getting help to finish college degrees

Detroit — Robecca March-Norman has spent more than two decades building a career in health care but decided earlier this year to go back to college at age 50.

March-Norman works in health care administration after attending four colleges but only earned a diploma in 2001 from one of them, a technical school. She wants to get more, so she enrolled in Degree Forward, an innovative accelerated online program for working adults that includes no lectures or tests; instead, it focuses on students completing projects to earn a degree. 

It’s also affordable since students could earn an associate degree in one year for $7,000 or less.

March-Norman has completed eight projects in her first term and needs to finish 60 projects to complete her associate’s degree.

The program is part of a broader effort to address Michigan’s longstanding college completion gap between residents who have a degree versus those who don’t. There is roughly a 30 percentage point gap in five-year college graduation rates at four-year colleges between students based on race, income and geography, according to state data. 

For March-Norman, who has worked for seven years at the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System as an intake and admissions supervisor, participating in Degree Forward is her way of reaching a personal goal along with increasing her pay and worth.

 “I have major experience … (but) experience doesn’t carry you over with my company. You definitely have to have your degree,” said March-Norman, a Redford Township resident.

Degree Forward was launched last year by a new nonprofit known as Diploma Equity Project, which is working on two paths: creating better support systems for high school students to start and complete college without dropping out and offering alternative options for adults who never went to college or have stepped out and are looking to return.

Nearly 1.2 million people in Michigan have some college experience but no degree, according to estimates by the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based foundation promoting education beyond high school.   Local officials say that figure includes 675,000 people in the Detroit region.

The Diploma Equity Project  was started by three longtime education leaders who have worked in Detroit public and charter schools, and were affiliated with Promise Schools, an organization that managed three charter schools that were struggling at the time, including the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy.

They were motivated by state data reflecting inequity in Michigan college completion. 

By 2019, 38% of Detroit students who had enrolled in four-year colleges earned a degree after five years compared with 65% of students who lived outside Detroit, a 27 percentage point% gap, according to state data collected by the Diploma Equity Project. 

During that same time period, 40% of low-income students earned a four-year degree in five years, compared with 73% of students who were not low-income, a 33-point gap.

The largest disparity was by race: 33% of Black students enrolled in four-year colleges had earned a degree after five years, compared with 70% of White students, a gap of 37 points. 

Why gap hasn’t dwindled

“Those numbers have not changed terribly over the last decade, despite good faith efforts by universities across Michigan and a lot of work by high schools that have attempted different kinds of strategies to close that gap,” said Doug Ross, a Diploma Equity Project partner and a former senior adviser to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, leading the launch of the state’s tuition-free programs for adults, Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect.

Ross called the statistics “distressing” since they reflect income and race as predictors of college success.

“We want a person’s ability and determination to determine college success,” he said.

Despite hiring full-time staff who worked primarily with charter school alumni in college and creating different partnerships with universities, Ross said the college graduation gap between students of color and White students continued.

Danielle North (left front) and Robecca March (far right) at The Degree Forward Student Center in Detroit, Michigan on Monday June 27th, 2022.

Ross said there must be a new approach to ensure much higher college completion rates for high school students, and more options for adults who either never went to college or stopped.

“To go to college and not complete confers very little benefit and often the burden of debt,” Ross said. “Unless we can eliminate this gap in college completion based on race and income, we will not have achieved our goal of trying to eliminate this obstacle to equal opportunity.”

That’s why Ross, Danielle North and Melissa Hamann, partners in the Diploma Equity Project, call the work they are doing “unfinished business.”

They are planning to focus on Detroit but eventually expand their work statewide.

“The goal is … to see more students who are starting college, complete,” said Hamann, executive director of the Diploma Equity Project. “A college degree is still the greatest currency for adults.”

How program works elsewhere

Degree Forward has been underway since November, providing adult students with the pathway to earn their associate’s or bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University. It is funded with a $1.8 million state appropriation for three years.

The model replicates Duet, a nonprofit education organization in Boston that reimagined traditional college and replaced it with online projects that students must complete toward earning their degree from Southern New Hampshire University.

A 2021 Harvard University study showed that graduation rates were more than twice the average in Massachusetts, cut college costs in half and “eliminated race-based college completion disparities.”

One project is equivalent to one credit. The projects are student responses to hypothetical situations that occur in a workplace such as how to balance time between professional and personal interests and set goals for a team. 

“You do not take exams, you do no sit in lectures and everything real-world, real-life experience,” said North, executive director of Degree Forward.

Students work at their own paces online and have coaches available to help them. The program also has a student center in Detroit’s North Rosedale neighborhood if they want to meet with peers or their coach.

Sixty projects are the equivalent of 60 credits leading to an associate’s degree, and 120 projects lead to a bachelor’s degree. Transfer credits are also accepted.

Students can also take unlimited projects per term for the same rate of $2,332.33 per term, North said. So if a student takes 20 projects during an 18-week term, he or she can graduate with an associate’s degree in one year for about $7,000. Financial aid can also reduce that cost.

There are 53 students who have participated so far in the program, predominantly Black but also White students, ranging between the ages of 23-62 years old. The program is being promoted through outreach, on social media, at community events, word-of-mouth and in media outlets, North said. A few students are on track to graduate at the end of the year. 

Increasing the number of college graduates is important not only for individuals and their pay but for the state and for filling available jobs, North said.

“There are so many professionals who are working and loving their jobs but not earning above a standard wage,” North said. “If we can get these professionals to complete their degrees, it is going to boost our economy.” 

Coordinating high schools, colleges

An endeavor for high schools and colleges to coordinate efforts is still in development, but the Diploma Equity Project is working with a few Detroit high schools along with Wayne State University and Oakland University. Developing plans are focused on the schools working together, instead of separately, to help students succeed in college graduation.

From front to back, Degree Forward staffers Danielle North, Ebony Jennings and Raylynn Henry take a group picture with student Robecca March-Norman. March-Norman enrolled in the program to get more college credits and improve her pay in her health care administration job.

Most universities have put in place various programs over the years aimed at closing or reducing the college completion gap for underrepresented students without much success, Ross said. 

That is why it is important to try to develop and test systems that integrate the high schools and colleges to help achieve better college completion rates, he said. The hope is to find success and expand initiatives across the state so low-income, first-generation students and students of color are graduating at the same rate as their White counterparts.

“That,” Ross said, “is the first step to equal opportunity.”

[email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *