No, This Free College Degree Program Is Not A Scam, Tennessee Schools Tell Students | Nashville Public Radio

No, This Free College Degree Program Is Not A Scam, Tennessee Schools Tell Students

Jun 7, 2016

Tennessee universities have been sending out emails to thousands of students with a somewhat incredible subject line: "You may have earned an associate degree already."

This is part of a program the state rolled out last year called "reverse transfer," which has allowed hundreds of students who transferred from a community college to a four-year university to combine credits and receive an associate degree. But the program is still trying to overcome a perception hurdle: Some students don't believe it's real.

'Too Good To Be True'

Lindsey Knight transferred to Tennessee Tech University two years ago, from Volunteer State Community College. She hadn't bothered with getting an associate degree — she was more concerned with transferring quickly and getting a bachelor's at the end. 

Lindsey Knight holds up her diploma after receiving an associate degree from Vol State. She got the degree after she had already transferred to a four-year university.
Credit Courtesy of Lindsey Knight

But last year, she got an email telling her that she might have enough credits from both schools to quality for an associate degree, and she wouldn't have to pay a dime.

"When you're in college, that either makes you really excited or very suspicious of it," she says. "I didn't actually believe it. I was like, 'Why would they give me an associate degree?' " 

This is a challenge for schools across the state, which are finding that not all students are clamoring to see if they qualify for a free degree. 

Tennessee colleges have identified at least 8,000 transfer students who might have enough credits to get an associate. But only about one in five students who get the reverse transfer email actually take the next step of opting into the program, according to the state's reverse transfer office. 

Melissa Irvin, Assistant Vice President for Student Success at Tennessee Tech, points out that students are already prone to overlooking emails. But even among those who read the email, she says, some think it's "too good to be true."

"What we've found is, particularly if it appears that there's not any individual-specific information in the email, they're going to think that it's a scam," she says.

So now, Tennessee Tech is asking advisers to tell students first: Be on the lookout for this generic email; it is not spam.

The Push For Associate Degrees

The state has also been putting ads in all of the university student newspapers, says Gloria Gammel, who oversees the reverse transfer program statewide. Gov. Bill Haslam made a promotional video to get the word out. At one point, students could get a free Redbox rental if they opted in.

"It's an uphill battle, it really is," Gammel says. "It does seem too good to be true, and we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch." (She adds: This isn't actually free, because students have already paid for the college credits.)

But all of this is going toward giving students a degree that will be mostly irrelevant once they get a bachelor's. So why is the state putting in the effort to dole out more associate degrees?

Gammel gives two reasons: One, if a student does have to drop out before graduating from a university, they'll be better positioned in the job market if they have a two-year degree. And two, research suggests that students are more likely to finish a bachelor's if they already have an associate.

"For some students, it's a real motivator, a validating event," Gammel says. " 'Yes, I am college material. I can do this!' "

This proved to be true for Lindsey Knight at Tennessee Tech. Before she got that email about reverse transfer last year, she had been losing steam in college. But then — after deciding the email was legitimate and opting into the program — she received her associate and felt encouraged, she says. She'll be finishing her bachelor's and applying to grad school this fall.

"I just remember when I got my associate degree and I was holding it, I was like, 'Wow, this is real,' " Knight says. "I've made it at least two years at an institution. I just have to keep going."