ST. LOUIS - Carmen Ricotta knows being a college graduate could mean higher pay and better job opportunities, and it's not like St. Louis Community College hasn't been practically begging her to wrap up her two-year degree.
The school has been calling and emailing the 28-year-old electrician's apprentice to get her to return and complete her final assignment: an exit exam. But life has gotten in the way and Ricotta has been too busy to make the 30-minute trip from her suburban home near Fenton to the downtown St. Louis campus.
St. Louis Community College is among 60-plus schools in six states taking what seems like an obvious but little-used step to boost college graduation rates: scouring campus databases to track down former students who unknowingly qualify for degrees.
That effort, known as Project Win-Win, has helped community colleges and four-year schools in Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin find hundreds of ex-students who have either earned enough credits to receive associate degrees or are just a few classes shy of getting them.
Backed by financial support from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, the pilot project began several years ago with 35 colleges in six states. As it winds down, some participating schools plan to continue the effort on their own.
Ricotta said at this point, she's not sure if getting her two-year degree is all that necessary.
"It's a pain," she said. "I don't feel like going down to the college to take a test I don't need. Yeah, I don't have the degree, but I still took all the classes."
Her seeming indifference to retroactively obtaining her degree points to just one of the challenges facing two-year schools in particular as they strive to fulfill President Barack Obama's challenge of raising college completion rates to 60 percent by 2020: convincing not just the public, but even some of their students, of the value of an associate's degree.
At central Missouri's Columbia College, the hunt for students on the verge of graduating worked so well that the school plans to broaden its efforts to find bachelor's degree candidates who are just one class shy of donning the cap and gown. The private liberal arts college has already awarded nearly 300 retroactive degrees, including one given posthumously to the mother of a deceased former student. Another two dozen students returned to campus to finish up after hearing from the school.
"If this was being done nationwide, it could make a difference," said Tery Donelson, Columbia College's assistant vice president for enrollment management.
Like his counterparts in St. Louis, Donelson and his team of transcript detectives also encountered skepticism, if not outright disbelief, from some of the prospective degree awardees.
"If you received a letter saying, `Congratulations, you've earned a degree,' what would you be thinking?" he said. "That this is a scam. We had to get beyond them.
"We told them they earned a degree, and all they had to do was acknowledge it," Donelson continued. "We didn't want to send a degree to anybody who didn't want it."
Participating schools pared down their initial lists by eliminating students who received degrees elsewhere or were currently enrolled. Expired addresses or disconnected phone numbers eliminated many more.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy, which oversaw the project, initially estimated a potential increase of 25,000 new degrees if its efforts took hold nationwide. But most schools found the exercise more difficult than expected, said Cliff Adelman, a senior associate with the Washington-based policy group.
"It ain't as easy as you think," he said. "You can't use a magic wand and have this kind of thing happen."
In Oregon, a review of more than 6,000 students' academic records at the state's 17 community colleges found 109 degree-eligible students and another 905 who might qualify. Virginia's Tidewater Community College awarded 34 degrees and convinced 15 more students to return to campus from its initial pool of 651 prospects.
Four-year schools could follow the lead of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which used the program to connect with dropouts who might still be interested in a two-year diploma. Or they could link up with neighboring community colleges in what are known as "reverse transfer" agreements.
Those agreements allow students to receive their associate's degrees if they earned enough credits toward them but didn't actually obtain them before heading to a four-year school. The two-year schools, in turn, can boost their completion rates -- a critical measure for accrediting agencies and lawmakers looking for results.
One student happy to hear about what amounts to a free degree is Corey Manuel, 34, an Air Force veteran who expects to receive a bachelor's degree in management information systems from Columbia College. He took his classes at a Denver-area branch campus.
Manuel said his educational journey includes nearly 200 credits from five different schools, including a one-year stint straight out of high school playing basketball at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo., and a pair of stops at Louisiana State University's community college in Eunice.
Now an information technology manager at defense contractor Raytheon, Manuel nonetheless still craves the credential he was too busy to pick up along the way.
"I wanted to make sure I had that box checked," he said.