Given that they enroll more than a third of all undergraduates in the United States, public four-year colleges and universities will have to pick up their game in a big way if the country has any chance at all of meeting the ambitious goals that President Obama and his co-conspirators in the "completion agenda" have set for increasing postsecondary attainment.
And on Tuesday, nearly 500 of them -- and their associations -- pledged to do just that, vowing to increase by 3.8 million the number of bachelor's degrees they award by 2025. They asserted, however, that doing so would be difficult if not impossible unless federal and state governments restore their historically strong financial support for the institutions.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, whose members together make up virtually all of the four-year public institutions in the United States, said their "Project Degree Completion" would be an "unprecedented initiative that will drive the instructional agenda of public universities and colleges in the years ahead," as M. Peter McPherson, president of the land-grant group, said in typically understated fashion.
Under the plan, to which 490 colleges and universities have so far committed, American public four-year institutions would raise the number of bachelor's degrees they award a year from an expected 1.075 million this year to 1.578 million in 2025, with much of the gain coming by reaching out to former students who left without a degree.
The institutions would do this, the associations said, both by "constraining" the amount that they spend per student and assuring "that educational quality is enhanced, not compromised."
Doing that will be difficult, though, they concede. While institutions have kept per-student expenditures essentially flat, many of them have had to raise tuition "to compensate for the significant loss of state dollars,” the signers of the commitment said in a statement.
If enrollments (and completions) are to continue to grow, they said, “states must provide sufficient appropriations to support students and the discovery of new knowledge,” while the federal government must maintain its “commitment to student financial aid; support for research and innovation; and encouragement of states to continue their support for public colleges and universities.”
Public colleges and universities themselves must be “more innovative in the performance of their essential roles,” they add.
“There has been significant dialogue lately about the decline of the middle class," said Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Improving degree completion and enhancing earning power is an important component to rebuilding the middle class in this country. Public higher education has a responsibility to be part of the solution.”