Fall in the Quad, University of Washington Seattle campus, October 2013. (Katherine B. Turner/courtesy UW)

Lawmakers in the state of Washington want to give college dropouts a chance to finish their degree for free, a novel proposal that could have far-reaching implications for boosting national completion rates.

Washington’s Free to Finish College bill, which is wending its way through the legislature with bipartisan support, calls for the state to cover tuition for residents who are 15 credits short of an associates or bachelor’s degree. Those folks must be pursuing their first college degree and must have dropped out of college at least three years ago to qualify for scholarships to finish up at a Washington state college or university.

“If you’re a student who has had to interrupt your studies because you couldn’t afford to keep going… and you never got your degree, neither the state nor you as a student are getting the benefit of that investment you’ve made,” said Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge), one of the bill’s sponsors. “We want these students to finish up their degree, get a better job, so they can provide better for their family.”

House Democrats on Monday released a supplemental 2015-2017 budget that included $1 million a year for a pilot to test out the scholarships. Hansen anticipates the funding will help put degrees in the hands of at least 500 residents a year. He estimates there are around 16,000 students in the state who would qualify for the scholarships, most of whom attended local community colleges. If the pilot is successful, Hansen hopes to expand the program.

What’s significant about the proposal is that with a relatively modest investment the state could garner tremendous returns. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and earn higher wages than people with only a high school diploma, and therefore can contribute more to the local economy. Metropolitan areas where a high proportion of adults have bachelor’s degrees enjoy rapid growth in per capita income, according to the College Board.

“A lot of our financial aid policies, attrition policies and just the national conversation is built around traditional-age college students,” said Nate Johnson, head of Postsecondary Analytics, a higher education research and consulting firm. “There are a lot of adults who may have started college, never quite made it through and just need help with the last step.”

Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s working-age population, or 46 million Americans over the age of 18, have attended college but never obtained a degree, according to the Census Bureau. At least 15 states, including Oklahoma, Colorado and Georgia, recognize the value in reaching out to this population with adult learning programs. Georgia has degree completion programs at 13 state colleges and universities, while Oklahoma offers on-campus and online courses at 23 public institutions through its Reach Higher program.

Colorado is among several states that have what are known as completion colleges, schools dedicated to serving older students interested in finishing up a degree. These schools, which emerged in the 1970s, are known for a willingness to accept prior college credit and learning experience outside of the classroom, Johnson said.

Traditional colleges and universities, however, are often reluctant to accept credits from other schools, a possible hurdle in the success of the Washington proposal. Schools, after all, have to buy in. And there is no guarantee that the University of Washington will accept 15-year-old credits from a community college in another state.

Hansen said public four-year institution in Washington have strong transfer agreements with junior colleges in the state, but suspects it could get tricky if a eligible resident wants to transfer credits from elsewhere.

“It’s going to be easiest if you’re three years out of Central Washington University and you want to go back to Central Washington University. It’s going to be harder if you are 20 years out from one school and want to go to another. But that’s what we’re going to figure out,” Hansen said. “No one has tried this on a widespread basis, so we’ll see how many people we want to have in each of those buckets.”

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