In 2007, the Rev. John Reese was close to graduating from the University of Kentucky when life got too overwhelming. He was working, raising a family and pastoring at a church in Maysville.
"I was getting burned out," Reese said. "I had many irons in the fire, don't know how I did it."
Then Reese heard about Project Graduate, a statewide program that finds students who have 80 credits but haven't graduated and streamlines the process for them to get a degree. Today, Reese is slowly finishing up the language requirements that had eluded him.
"I think the program is really beneficial because it gives those who are on the edge of getting that degree that step up to finish what they started," Reese said.
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Project Graduate was started by the Council on Postsecondary Education in 2008 and has graduated 605 students so far. It has an additional 651 enrolled at all eight of Kentucky's public universities.
The program has been such a success that it recently won a national award from the Noel Levitz education consulting firm, which annually honors the best student-retention efforts in the nation.
Don Witt, UK's vice provost for enrollment, organizes the program for UK. He said Project Graduate has helped 179 students return to UK for their degrees. There are 297 more students re-enrolled.
Witt said the program has helped the entire system become more efficient by meeting the needs of these returning students.
"It's been a model for how we should serve all students: How can we streamline processes, make things more efficient?" Witt said. "It's important we value everyone's time."
The program requires schools to waive the application fee, allows students to complete a quick application process to get back in the system, audits their transcript to see what classes are really necessary to finish the degree, and helps them figure out financial aid. Project Graduate students also get priority registration each semester.
"Most of these students are adult learners coming back to school, balancing jobs and family," Witt said. "They're able to work their class schedules around their personal schedules."
Witt said the program also has helped with communication among all eight public universities, who are sharing ideas for improvement.
Project Graduate can help individual students, but it's also designed to meet a broader goal of increasing the number of Kentuckians with college degrees. In 2011, 20,318 bachelors' degrees were handed out statewide, but the Council on Postsecondary Education's goal is an increase to 22,900 by 2014.
In addition, the current statewide graduation rate for bachelors' degrees is 48.2 percent, with a goal of 53 percent.
Reese is now pastoring a church in Paris, and his commute to UK is shorter.
"It's still not easy," he said of completing his degree. "But there's things in place that help the non-traditional students."
Project Graduate will be recognized at this year's National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing and Retention, July 24 to 26 in Chicago.