The state and higher education institutions are engaging Ohioans to finish earning their degrees.

Denisha Cochran is determined not to let her second shot at earning a college degree and building a new career slip away.

Ten years removed from first enrolling at Ohio State University fresh out of high school, Cochran completed work on an associate of science degree at Columbus State Community College in December. Now it’s on to seeking admission to the college’s nursing program.

“It’s a long journey,” says the mother of two who has held a full-time job at a state agency while taking night classes at Columbus State over the last two years.

Cochran says she was just not ready to do well academically during her two years at Ohio State. Then life got in the way until she decided it was time to enroll at Columbus State and make a fresh start. Helped by academic advisers and committed to setting a good example for her young sons, Cochran says she has posted a grade point average of at least 3.0 every semester at Columbus State.

“We mapped out from start to finish how long it would take to get my GPA up to where I can apply to the nursing program,” she says, adding the process included Columbus State accepting the majority of her Ohio State course credits.

What stands in the way

Cochran is not alone in needing a second chance at finishing a degree. A 2017 study by the American Council on Education found that 36 million Americans ages 25 and up have some college education but no degree. More than half of them had spent two or more years in college.

The study says many of those students leave school burdened with debt and saddled with course credits that may not transfer to another college. At that point, they become less likely to complete a degree program than they were before dropping out.

As a result, the study concludes, those students miss out on the benefits of a college degree, including higher lifetime income and greater insulation from unemployment.

In Ohio, about 20 percent of those ages 25 and above have some college but no degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That amounts to about 1.3 million people statewide.

Census data also show that Ohioans with a bachelor’s degree tend to have a lower unemployment rate and higher earnings than those with some college or an associate degree.

For example, the bachelor’s degree group had an unemployment rate of 2.97 percent over a five-year period ending in 2015 compared with 6.92 percent for those with some college or an associate degree.

Additionally, Ohioans with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $49,281 in 2015 compared with $32,366 for the some college/associate degree category.

Helping learners

The biggest obstacles to completing a degree program are finances, including tuition, fees, books and living expenses, and juggling life challenges such as family issues and the demands of balancing a job with school work, says Brett Visger, an associate vice chancellor at the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

He says the department is working with Philanthropy Ohio on communication tools to more effectively spread the message about the state’s efforts to boost the number of Ohioans with postsecondary credentials. Ohio has also implemented funding formulas that base state financial support for colleges and universities on outcome measures such as degree completion.

Each state-supported school is required to develop a plan that focuses on degree completion efforts, with Visger saying comprehensive strategies work best in that regard.

Columbus State has taken a number of steps to address issues that get in the way of student progress toward completing a degree, says Kelly Hogan, the college’s executive director of college completion.

They include more student support services both online and in person, additional tuition payment options, reduced textbook costs, extensive online course offerings and financial wellness workshops.

“We also launched ‘Student Central,’ ” Hogan says. “It’s our one-stop shop for students’ questions and concerns to concentrate multiple resources in one place.”

In addition, Columbus State conducts “nudge campaigns” that urge students to make decisions early about which classes to take and to sign up for support services. The college also reaches out to students when they take a semester off, reminding them how close they are to a degree or professional certificate.

“Life gets in the way,” Hogan says, “and students may have to take a pause. It’s tough to provide for your family while you’re trying to get a degree.”

Making transfer easy

The loss of credits during the transfer process can be one of the big stumbling blocks for students hoping to earn a college degree, says Lynne Hull, dean of student affairs and enrollment management at Columbus-based Franklin University.

Recognizing that, Franklin has what she calls an “incredibly generous” credit transfer policy. That’s important since about 75 percent of the university’s students have some level of college credits when they enroll.

“We want to enable students to maximize their transfer credits as we keep their best interests in mind,” Hull says.

Franklin offers an online tool that helps students learn which course credits can be applied to a Franklin degree, how long it will take to earn the degree and how much it will cost. It also has a Community College Alliance of more than 230 schools whose associate degree credits transfer toward a four-year degree from Franklin.

Hull says the university also is moving forward with efforts to help students leverage professional training credits and work experience toward a Franklin degree.

“Where I hope we’re going,” she says, “is documenting college-level learning alternatives.”

She says Franklin recognizes it is critical to help students maximize the financial aid available to them and get the academic support they need to finish a degree program. In that regard, the university has 20 full-time academic advisers and a staff member who reaches out to students who have withdrawn from classes for more than a year.

Columbus State has credit transfer agreements with nine “Preferred Pathway” partners, including Ohio State and a number of private universities in central Ohio. The program allows students to complete the first two years of requirements in their major at Columbus State and transfer seamlessly to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.

Students save money that way with Columbus State’s lower tuition charges. They also avoid what can be a hassle when it comes to transferring course credits from another college, the military and trade and industry programs that award certificates.

Nonacademic barriers

Studies show those at lower socioeconomic levels are less likely to finish a college degree program than students from more privileged backgrounds. The cost of a college education is a major contributor to that, says Joshua Hawley, an associate professor at Ohio State. So is the fact that some students arrive on campus unprepared to understand what he describes as the “process of college.” That includes finding housing, lining up financial aid, selecting a degree program and meeting academic responsibilities.

“I think it’s reflective of a range of difficulties they have in coming to college and feeling accepted,” says Hawley, director of the Ohio Education Research Center that focuses on bridging research, policy and practice around education in Ohio.

He says those re-entering college need help making connections to resources such as housing, mental health counseling and academic advising if they are to be successful.

It’s also important for returning students to decide on a career so they can zero in on the courses they need to earn a degree. That cuts degree completion time and saves on the cost of an education.

“At a certain point,” Hawley says, “you have to figure out what you’re preparing for.”