Program helps former students earn degrees

LOUISVILLE — Mary Warren was a few credits shy of graduating from the University of Louisville 15 years ago when life got in the way.

Her younger brother was battling cancer. Suddenly, finishing her English degree didn't seem that important. Warren went on to get married, have children and get a job with the U.S. Census Bureau, abandoning her pursuit of a degree in the process.

”I just never went back,“ she said.

Yet with the help of a new Kentucky program designed to help former college students finish what they started, Warren plans to finally complete her degree in August.

She is one of more than 200 people earning degrees through Project Graduate, an initiative launched by the state's Council on Postsecondary Education last November to help adults who piled up a significant number of college credits but left before grabbing a diploma.

Sue Patrick, a spokeswoman for the council, said there has been an overwhelming reaction to the program.

”People have come out of the woodwork,“ she said.

People like Louis Milligan, 36, who left Kentucky State University in the 1990s to get married before going into business for himself. He received a postcard from the school recently touting Project Graduate. He learned he had enough credits to earn a degree in liberal arts without having to take any additional classes. He graduated in May.

”I think it's great,“ he said. ”I was calling people that I started off with at KSU that didn't finish and telling them, "Y'all need to go.' “

More than 300,000 state residents between 25 and 50 have some college credit from a state school, but no degree. Project Graduate is for former students who have 90 or more credit hours, or about 75 percent of the 120-125 credit hours needed to receive a bachelor's degree from most institutions.

The program is part of a plan to boost the number of Kentuckians with bachelor's degrees to nearly 800,000 by 2020, nearly double the total residents with bachelor's degrees in 2000.

Officials say increasing the number of residents with college degrees will boost the economy and produce more revenue for the state.

It also provided a lifeline for Kyle Blakeley, who left the University of Kentucky three classes short of a philosophy degree after getting a job. When she was downsized recently, she decided to finish her degree.

”When you don't have a degree, it kind of eliminates a big chunk of the positions out there that you can even apply for,“ she said.

The program doesn't require students to return to the school where they earned their previous credits. Some students are able to take classes online, through correspondence courses or at a regional campus. Many schools have made it easier for returning students by offering admission fee waivers and tuition breaks.

The response has been so positive the program is being expanded from the state's eight public universities to include 10 private colleges.

”We have many in Kentucky that started and haven't finished,“ said Asbury College president Sandra Gray. ”There is enough work here for all of us, and we're all working together to help further the level of education in the state.“