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Former students given chance to complete degree

by Richard Veilleux - April 24, 2006

UConn’s Class of 1991 will have a representative at the University’s May 7 undergraduate commencement who won’t be sitting with the crowd.

Thanks to some digging through old files by an assistant registrar, Jonathan Hipsher will instead join the sea of black robes and mortarboards worn by the Class of 2006.

Hipsher, who is part-owner of a marina and boatyard in Portland, is one of more than 75 former UConn students who left Storrs without earning a degree, but who were only a few credits short or, due to recent policy changes, just needed a few changes in their paperwork to qualify for a UConn diploma.

“There have been several changes in graduation requirements in the past few years, so I started looking through the files of students who had applied for graduation, but never graduated, to see if the new rules would help them,” says Kimberly Page, assistant registrar for degree auditing.

“I found quite a few. And while I was looking, I came across a lot of people who only needed a few more credits, and it bothered me, so I made some phone calls.”

Page’s extra effort has made a lot of people very happy. Since Page began digging through the cabinets, 38 former students have earned a UConn degree, many without requiring additional coursework.

Another 35-40 who only needed a few credits were thrilled to receive the call, and are busily taking a course or two either at UConn or another university, and will transfer the credits they earn to UConn in order to complete their requirements.

Hipsher, for one, is finding college work easier today than he did during his formative years.

“I’m just applying myself more,” says Hipsher, who is carrying a “high ‘A’ average” in his Geography 130 class.

“It’s different when you’re older. You know it’s important and you know what you have to do to succeed.”

Success, he says, is one reason he put off completing work toward his degree.

That and the rigors of life and starting a family.

But after he received a letter and call from the registrar last fall, his interest was piqued, and he checked with UConn to see what he had to do.

“The rest is history,” says the Colchester resident.

Page’s effort, says University Registrar Jeff von Munkwitz-Smith, went beyond the usual practices followed here and at other universities.

“In the past this has occurred on an ad hoc basis, usually when someone who thought he or she had graduated (‘But I attended Commencement!’), needed a transcript for a new job or an employer called for a degree verification,” von Munkwitz-Smith says.

“Sometimes we’d be able to get the student cleared for graduation when the main thing lacking was paperwork.”

Several years ago, he recalled, he worked with officials in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to get a substitution for the language requirement for a student who left the University about 50 years before.

“He had done well in his other courses, but just couldn’t pass the last semester of Spanish,” says von Munkwitz-Smith.

“Ironically, he spent nearly his entire career, in the petroleum geology industry, living and working overseas. The man’s niece brought the situation to my attention. Once the degree was awarded, I presented the diploma to him at a luncheon his family arranged. It was quite a surprise for him and a really wonderful experience for me.”

Page, too, is enjoying her discoveries.

“It’s been fun. I don’t know why I kept going. Curiosity maybe. A conversation with people about what I found. It really got to me to see people who were one or two credits short. So I made some calls, did some searches on the Internet, and found a few people we could help,” Page says.

“Life goes on. Something happened that kept them from finishing. Others say they’ve been thinking about finishing, and a few others were really surprised – they thought they had finished,” she adds.

A number of the people Page tracked down finished paperwork in the fall and were listed as December 2005 graduates. Others, like Hipsher, are completing their work now.

“I think other schools do look back at the records of students who recently left to see if they had completed whatever it was that they were lacking to graduate,” says von Munkwitz-Smith.

“The difference in our approach is that we looked further back and looked to see if recent rules changes would allow the student to graduate. If the students were still short, but close, we encouraged them to take that last class or two, and worked with the schools and colleges to get the necessary permissions for the students to do so. If paperwork was all that was missing, we worked with the schools and colleges to get that completed.”

Students have eight years to complete a degree, but can apply toward their degree any credits earned more than eight years before graduation, if they obtain permission from the dean of the school or college concerned.

“What’s driving this initiative isn’t particularly improving our graduation rates – most of the students are beyond the six-year window we report anyway,” says von Munkwitz-Smith.

“When students graduate – whether in three years or four or six or 10 or 50 – it’s a good thing. That’s the driver.”

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