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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Imagine finding out that you have a college degree just waiting for you somewhere. Several hundred dropouts from Michigan community colleges are getting that news. They each have enough credits to qualify for an associate degree. There are also some ex-students who apparently didn't know they're just a few credits shy of that two-year degree.

And, as Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports, a nationwide search is on to find and notify them.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: There are probably thousands of people roaming the job market unaware that they've qualified for a certificate or a degree that actually makes them more employable. That matters in places like Michigan where nearly one in 10 people is out of work and looking for a job.

GOVERNOR RICK SNYDER: Michigan needs to do a better job of matching the supply of talent with the demand for talent.

PLUTA: That's Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder. He calls this a skills gap. But part of that could also be called a credential gap. Nine community colleges here were part of an effort led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy to find people who did the course work, but, for whatever reason, didn't claim their degree or certificate.

The schools audited their student records and found a whopping 800 students already qualified to graduate with an associate degree and thousands more who were close. Across the country, this effort called Project Win-Win identified about 4,500 people in nine states who dropped out of a community college after earning enough credits for an associate degree.

A lot of these students started at a two-year community college intending to transfer to a four-year college or university, but never did, says Michael Hansen, who heads the Michigan Community Colleges Association.

MICHAEL HANSEN: So they're really not focused, they're not interested at least at the time in a associate degree. The eye on the prize is the baccalaureate degree.

PLUTA: But, Hansen says, there's still value to the education they've had. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with an associate degree on average earn $132 more per week than someone with just a high school diploma. People with degrees are also less likely to be laid off. Lots of community colleges are getting into the act now, trying to lure back students who've dropped out or moved on.

About 19,000 students attend Lansing Community College at any given time, many on their way to a four-year university. The college has its own program, called Credit When Credit Is Due. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The program is called "Credit When It's Due."] It lets students who've moved on to four-year schools know they can come back and claim their credits, and maybe even a degree.

Evan Montague, the dean of Student Services here, says schools are getting better at coordinating credits and courseloads with each other, and that's important as more students attend two, three or more schools.

EVAN MONTAGUE: Let's look at all the educational experiences that you've had, and see how it lends itself to a credential that has value in the workforce, a credential that has value to you individually.

PLUTA: Montague says some students even return to community college after earning their bachelor's degrees. And there's another payoff. As colleges and universities face pressure to boost graduation rates, finding former students who are ready to graduate right now but don't know it is a smart and easy way to do that. For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan.

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