Program helps man on 40-year college plan finally graduate from UK

As a former high school dropout who started college decades ago, Patrick Rowan will cross the stage at the University of Kentucky's commencement ceremony Saturday to collect a diploma for the first time in his life.

It's a bit intimidating, he admitted.

"I'm a little afraid," said Rowan, 66. "I don't want to screw it up."

Rowan returned this spring to UK, where he had taken classes on and off starting in the waning months of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration. He's one of five students who will graduate from UK on Saturday after resuming their college education through Kentucky's Project Graduate program.

The program seeks people who, for whatever reason, left a Kentucky college without graduating after accruing more than 90 credit hours. That amounts to roughly three-quarters of what's required for a bachelor's degree.

The eight public universities in Kentucky have estimated that as many as 67 Project Graduate students will receive their degrees this spring. Eastern Kentucky University has a bumper crop of 16 who are graduating thanks to the program.

That will push the number of diploma-holding success stories for Project Graduate well past the century mark. As of December, 99 students had graduated from the public universities because of the program, which started in 2007.

Ten private colleges are participating in the program, but data isn't available for them.

"This is just an incredibly wonderful opportunity to help students like this," said Cecile McKinney, who is UK's point person for Project Graduate in the Adult Student Services office. "We're in the dream business. We help make dreams come true."

Going through the program was more of a formality for Mark Dobbs, who runs Regency Animal Hospital in Lexington.

He left UK in 1988 before graduating to attend veterinary school at Auburn University. An avid UK football fan, Dobbs got game tickets through the UK Alumni Association thanks to his wife, a UK alumna.

"I had all this time and money invested in everything UK, but it was like I never had anything to do with UK," he said.

This spring, the UK College of Agriculture determined that he qualified for a degree because of the classes he took at Auburn and will now be an official UK alumnus.

For Rowan, who recently retired from a career in food distribution, finally getting a degree is a point of pride.

After some tough times growing up, he left Covington Catholic High School early.

"I was sort of asked not to come back" is how he put it.

Through a program offered at UK at the time that targeted adults older than 21 who hadn't graduated from high school, he took the ACT exam and was admitted into the university in 1968.

He kept getting drafted by the military, then getting rejected because of bad knees.

Fearing "that the rest of my education was going to be in Vietnam," Rowan never got into an academic rhythm and finally left school in 1978 with a GPA of 1.99.

He got a job as a food salesman and later became a partner in a food brokerage business, but he was nagged by the unfinished business of college.

It wasn't until he took a correspondence course a couple of years ago that he finally decided to finish what he had started four decades earlier.

"I don't know if it was their mistake or mine. I thought it was a 40-year program, not a four-year program," he deadpanned.

UK advisers determined that he needed to get an A in a 300-level quantitative-analysis class to satisfy the requirements of the business-administration degree.

One of the facets of Project Graduate is that it allows the colleges to perform a degree audit for prospective students based on the requirements when they started college — not based on current qualifications, McKinney said.

Rowan took most of his classes online from his home in Taylor Mill in Northern Kentucky. But he had to drive to UK for class four times.

In all, 35 students will have graduated from UK through Project Graduate.

The program was created as another tool for the state to increase the number of college-degree holding citizens. About a half-million Kentuckians ages 25-64 have taken some college classes but don't have a degree, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Project Graduate is helping chip away at that number. More than 430 students using the program were enrolled in Kentucky public universities this spring, said Sue Patrick, spokeswoman for the council.

McKinney said interest in the program has increased with the recession.

"One thing we hear from people is that they might still have their job but they're afraid of losing it and they don't have that bachelor's degree on their résumés," she said. "Or they've lost their job and are entering the marketplace and they have to make themselves more marketable."

Rowan said he hopes to take more classes and perhaps develop a new hobby or career in computers. At the very least, he said, he has options.

"My GPA isn't the best," he said. "But I am a college graduate."