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Smart Degree: A New Way to Help Non-Traditional Students Succeed

December 1, 2014


SmartDegree_Logo_TM_WebSmart Degree, a free program designed to help adults with some college credit return to school to complete their bachelor’s degrees, is a new part of the Nelnet family and an exciting way to help students who have had a difficult time going back to finish their degrees.

There are 36 million adults 25 and over with some college credits but no degree. After enrollment, something is happening that prevents many well-intentioned students from finishing. In fact, a recent report shows that non-first-time students are graduating at a 33% rate. The truth is, for many non-traditional students (adult, military, degree completers, etc.) there are dangers that impact retention and completion rates despite an eagerness to enroll.

Smart Degree takes members through four steps to help prepare them for college success and find the right school at which to earn the degree they’ve always wanted. Although the Smart Degree path is customized for each member, the four steps include:


  1. Free mentoring: Smart Degree mentors are with members through the entire process, guiding them every step of the way.
  2. Free career and academic assessments: These assessments help members determine their strengths and weaknesses to prepare for college success.
  3. Access to optional low-cost general education courses: Online courses are offered from a regionally accredited non-profit institution for just $150 per credit hour.
  4. Free access to the Smart Degree Student Marketplace: Members submit anonymous profiles, then schools compete for them with offers of enrollment that encompass their best tuition price, discounts, credits that will transfer, and more.

We created Smart Degree to prepare students to succeed in college and then match them with great colleges like yours. Smart Degree was developed to address the main issues impacting retention for non-traditional students: lack of academic, financial, and personal preparedness.

Academic Preparedness: You’ve probably worked with many adult students who either haven’t been to school in a while or weren’t great students when they were in high school. This can lead to a lack of capability and confidence, and both are important to address. With Smart Degree, career and academic assessments are a standard part of the process, and they’re offered for free, along with the appropriate academic remediation identified. Reminding students of basic math and English building blocks leads to confidence, and confidence leads to motivation.

Financial Preparedness: I don’t have to tell you that the cost of education is all the rage these days in media, politics, and social commentary. It’s tempting to assume that the student who has already decided education is the key to their future understands the financial implications of returning to school. Yet when exploring the reasons behind student drops, many cite cost as a primary element. These were students who were not prepared for the financial reality of paying for their education. Smart Degree addresses this issue with access to 20 optional low-cost general education courses provided by Bellevue University and the Smart Degree Student Marketplace, which delivers price transparency and the opportunity to have schools compete for student enrollment.

Personal Preparedness: Non-traditional students obviously face personal issues that a typical high school graduate doesn’t when going to school. Family, work, and military commitments are just a few examples of the personal issues that may compete with education on the priority list. Online programs cater to the flexibility requirements of this audience, but they don’t address the broader personal issues. There’s no way to predict what will happen in the lives of non-traditional students, but Smart Degree can prepare them for dealing with the inclusion of college in their lives. Smart Degree mentors talk with members about their motivations for going back to school, their concerns about making it all work, and their confusion regarding the process and how to take the first step. By helping them work through potential issues ahead of time, Smart Degree mentors ensure students enroll only when they are able to articulate a committed and informed decision – making them much better students and increasing their likelihood to graduate.

Clear_Path_GlassesSmart Degree is different because it is not merely a marketing program for colleges. It’s a unique, innovative, and first-of-its-kind way to help students prepare for, afford, and choose the best school. Simultaneously, Smart Degree gives partner schools exclusive access to prospective students who are prepared to enroll and succeed in college.

If your team is frustrated with the caliber of students or prospective students being identified through current marketing efforts, Smart Degree is the way forward. Smart Degree partner schools have exclusive access to the Smart Degree Student Marketplace, populated only with profiles of students prepared to succeed in college and career. Go to to learn how your school can get on the roster.

If you are working with students who would benefit from personalized guidance as they get back on track to earn their college degrees, Smart Degree is the answer. The free support is just a click or phone call away, and they can get started immediately at


Dale Leatherwood, VP of Business Development for Smart Degree and Managing Director, Business Development for Nelnet Enrollment Solutions

Dale Leatherwood, VP of Business Development for Smart Degree and Managing Director, Business Development for Nelnet Enrollment Solutions

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