Jim Bunnell racked up credits in English at Kent State Stark, but dropped out to marry and have two children.
This fall, though, the school in Jackson Township called him with pleasant news: He had earned enough credits for an associate degree and could collect it at graduation Friday.
''I said, 'Wow,'?'' said Bunnell, 34, a software engineer. ''I always thought I was close to the halfway mark. I figured. 'I can't finish it now, so I'll come back later.'?''
He is part of a fledgling program called Project Win-Win that helps community colleges and regional campuses identify students who have completed enough credits for an associate degrees but for some reason never graduated.
When the tax-supported KSU Stark began auditing student records last year, it discovered more than 70 students at its campus and at the main Kent campus who were eligible for associate degrees.
''A lot of time students are so focused on getting their bachelor's degrees that they don't realize that the associate degree is an option,'' said Mary Southards, assistant dean of enrollment services at Kent State Stark. ''That's particularly true for students who are not in a two-year technical program.''
Project Win-Win began at nine institutions around the country in fall 2009 and by this fall had grown to 64 institutions in nine states. Ohio participants are KSU campuses in Stark, Tuscarawas and Trumbull, and four Ohio community colleges: Clark State, Sinclair, Northwest State and Lakeland.
The program is sponsored by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and State Higher Education Officers. The Lumina Foundation for Education and the Kresge Foundation provided grants to help institutions do the legwork.
''Project Win-Win positively impacts the educational attainment of our region,'' Walter F. Wagor, dean of Kent State Stark, said in a news release.
The degree can make students more marketable to employers and gives them a leg up on reaching for a bachelor's degree, he said.
The project looks for students who enrolled after 2001, accumulated at least 61 credit hours and hadn't been enrolled at the institution in at least a year.
Kent State Stark ran the names of potential graduates through the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies student degrees and enrollments, to eliminate those who transferred to other colleges and possibly graduated.
As of August, 24 institutions had completed degree audits on 12,000 students and identified 2,800 as eligible for associate degrees and another 6,200 within nine to 12 hours of earning their associate degrees.
Project Win-Win encourages the latter to go back to school and finish the workload and provides them a road map to do so. Win-Win spokeswoman Tia Gordon said the first full report on results will be published in September.
While the program has nudged many students into getting their sheepskins, not all eligible students took advantage of the opportunity.
Southards, the KSU official, said the campus identified 400 students who were eligible to get associate degrees based on the course work they had completed. But more than 90 percent of those contacted did not take advantage of the offer.
''We were a little perplexed by it,'' Southards said. ''It's not the kind of return rate we thought we would have. It was a decision, 'No, this is something that I don't want.'?''
While the $15,000 grant provided by Project Win-Win will run out this spring, KSU Stark aims to find local funds to keep it going. The Ohio Board of Regents also has expressed interest in a statewide program, Southards said.
As for Bunnell, the North Canton resident who is unexpectedly receiving an associate degree at graduation, he plans to pursue a bachelor's degree when his children are older.
''It's on the radar,'' he said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.