Across Texas, tens of thousands of students have earned enough college credit for an associate degree without knowing it. A new project led by the University of Texas at Austin hopes to track them down. 

The program to be announced Tuesday, known as Reverse Transfer, will attempt to get those students their degrees — and maybe convince them to continue their schooling. If successful, there could be benefits for the students and the state, its creators say. And officials hope its use will extend beyond Texas. 

"It's a win-win-win solution all the way around," said UT-Austin Registrar Shelby Stanfield, who led the initiative. 

Students targeted by the program have often fallen through the cracks. Most started their academic careers enrolled in a junior or community college, then transferred to a four-year school with the goal of getting a bachelor's degree. Then, many dropped out, had academic problems or put their educations on hold. Often, they completed enough coursework at their new school to transfer those credits back to their old school and collect a two-year degree. But that option never occurred to them. 

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Getting that degree would actually be easy. Course credits transfer both ways, so students would likely only have to fill out paperwork. But research shows that filling out that paperwork would increase their earning power, and make them more likely to complete their bachelor's degree. 

"The paper matters; the sense of completion matters," Stanfield said. "Instead of saying, 'I have some college,' they can say that they have an associate's degree."

The system might also target students who are close to finishing an associate degree. News that they are just a few hours shy might motivate them to enroll in an online class and restart their education, Stanfield said. 

Texas has pushed for a reverse transfer system since 2011, but results have been limited, Stanfield said. Four-year schools regularly sent their transfer students' transcripts to their old schools to comply with state law but sometimes didn't give any explanation for why they were doing so. The community colleges would receive the transcripts but not know what to do with them, or spend long hours trying to verify the information.

The Reverse Transfer system will automate the process. Students transferring into four-year schools will sign a waiver allowing their new school to send their information to the old school once a certain number of hours are reached. The transfer process will be automated, and the transcripts will be verified by the National Student Clearinghouse. Participating in the program would be free for each school. 

That process was made possible in Texas by a state law passed in 2015. The bill's author, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said in a statement that she was "delighted to help universities and community colleges reduce costs and promote degree completion."

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The members of the University of Texas System are already working with a version of the new system, Stanfield said. Colleges and universities in Wisconsin and Missouri have also signed up, he said. The goal is for the program to be used by as many schools as possible in Texas and nationwide, Stanfield said. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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