This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wilson Community College.

WILSON — Michael Arnette was puzzled when he received a certificate for accounting from Wilson Community College. Though he’d been taking business courses part time with the goal of an associate degree eventually, he’d never signed up for certification.

“It came in the mail, and I had no idea I why,” said the 31-year-old sales manager. When he spoke with someone at the college, Arnette learned that some of the business courses he’d taken were required for an accounting certificate. The college awarded him a certificate because he had earned it, whether he knew it or not, and without asking.

Kamilah Harris, 27, was equally surprised when two certificates from WCC arrived, one for an administrative assistant and another for medical office assistant. Harris is focused on an eventual career in health administration while working two jobs, raising three kids, and attending school full-term while serving as president of the student body.

She was too busy to realize she’d earned a couple of certificates.

“Nobody expected it,” she said. “Made me feel good, like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Andrew Walker enjoys hearing about these happy surprises. As the WCC Director of Institutional Effectiveness, he wants to keep students enrolled to completion. The WCC Certificate Initiative program he quietly created a year ago may be the boost some students need to continue with their education.

It’s a challenge most colleges face. As reported by the accreditation organization the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, 60 percent of students drop out.

“They don’t get anything from anywhere,” Walker said.

He wants students to get credit for all their work. In the North Carolina Community College System, credit courses can lead to certification in any number of fields, and usually requires the completion of four courses in that field. These certificates can be résumé boosters and desired by employers. Next, the diploma program requires math and English, along with the field of study. And the highest, an associate degree, compares with the first two years of general college.

Most students focus on the degree and are not aware of certificates. Matching the completed coursework of thousands of students to dozens of certificate programs is a data mining challenge, however. Enter that data analysis giant, SAS.

In 2012, SAS provided an in-kind gift of the SAS Education Analytical Suite software, along with additional software components, to the community college system to enhance data collection and reporting at all 58 community colleges. As far as anyone knows, the Certificate Initiative program at Wilson was the first to use the software this way.

Walker used the SAS software to create a program that matches the certificates offered at Wilson to the courses completed by all 1,700 curriculum students who were enrolled in the 2016-17 academic year. He estimates 136,000 comparisons were required. The finished list of students and their completed certificate-worthy coursework was sent to the registrar’s office for confirmation.

The results have been astonishing. The number of certificates awarded at Wilson Community College jumped from 83 last year to 196 this year.

The number of certificates awarded at Wilson Community College jumped from 83 during the 2015-16 academic year to 196 the following year.

Walker looks at the numbers and wonders “what if?” Would 100 students have received certificates last year if the Certificate Initiative program had been available? And would that have made a difference to a student by giving them an incentive to continue their education?

Walker presented the WCC Certificate Initiative program at a recent meeting of the state’s community colleges.

“We’re giving it to everybody,” he said. “What good does it do for Wilson to keep it?”

At least five colleges have reached out to him for more information. He plans to give the program to any interested college and has written a do-it-yourself job aid for those interested in using the grant-supported SAS software to create their own program.

Harris and Arnette are two examples of the boost in confidence and commitment to their education these unexpected certificates provided.

“I’m going to frame them,” Harris said about her certificates, for the inspiration they provide for herself and other students.

Arnette’s fiancée encouraged him to consider going for a bachelor’s business degree, and he looks forward to learning what is involved with doing that. He had not considered that possibility, he said, until his certificate arrived.

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wilson Community College.