Governors Push College Completion

July 12, 2010

President Obama has used his bully pulpit to focus attention on the "college completion" agenda like no one else can. But if the United States is actually going to make meaningful progress on increasing the number of Americans with college credentials, it's going to be up to the states -- whose public institutions enroll roughly four of every five students -- to get the job done. And systemic change in the states will occur only if their chief executives -- governors -- get with the program.

That's the underlying message that Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia delivered Sunday in announcing that he would make higher education productivity the focus of his yearlong term as chair of the National Governors Association. (The governors' group lets its incoming chair choose an initiative on which to focus.) In a presentation at the association's annual meeting and a news conference with reporters, Manchin outlined the steps the governors' group will take to encourage its members, and the states they oversee, to try to increase the number of college- and career-ready residents despite what is virtually certain to be a time of continued fiscal austerity.

"As states face the worst economic crisis in modern history, we must collaborate to develop common performance measurements and take concrete steps to increase completion rates within our available resources," he said in unveiling "Complete to Compete." "From transforming first-year coursework to implementing performance funding, it is up to states and institutions to create policies that can improve degree attainment and more efficiently use the dollars invested by states and students."

Failure to do so could have significant implications for the country's (and individual states') futures, Manchin said, with recently published data showing that by 2018, there will be far more jobs requiring postsecondary training than trained workers ready to fill them.

"I truly believe that for our next generation to go to the next level, and for the country to be a superpower well into next century and beyond, we need to achieve better graduation" of our students, Manchin told reporters.

Those who've watched the parade of foundations, higher education groups, and other organizations start their own completion initiatives, backed by the Obama administration's own rhetorical and financial might, might be wondering: Really? This is what the the world really needs -- another one?

But governors are uniquely positioned to propel movement in their states, and this year could provide a unique opportunity to generate momentum among state chief executives, given that a potential record number of new governors -- at least 25 -- could take office next January, Manchin and his aides say.

"I chose higher education [as the issue to focus on] because almost every governor has a tremendous amount of input over public higher education, in terms of appointing trustees and chancellors" and helping to set budgets, Manchin said. "With that being said, I felt we could drive policy a lot more, and governors would have a lot more input" if they worked more closely together.

Under the NGA initiative -- on which Manchin and the group's staff began work months ago so they could hit the ground running when he took the reins at the association -- they would do so in a few key ways. The first is by agreeing on a set of common definitions and measures that they will commit their states to using to measure their performance both in showing educational progress and in achieving outcomes. The outcome metrics would include degrees and certificates awarded, graduation rates, transfer rates, and time and credits to degree; the progress metrics would include enrollment in remedial education, how students fare after they leave remedial education, success in first-year college courses, credit accumulation, retention rates, and course completion.

While many institutions and states already collect data on many of those measures, the NGA initiative envisions improving on existing information by having states commit to collecting and publishing data for transfer students (as opposed to just first-time, full-time freshmen), by socioeconomic status, and in other ways that they don't now.

Manchin said he would exhort all of his colleagues to agree to adopt and begin reporting their performance on the new metrics -- and to commit as much in their State of the State addresses next winter.

"Comparable, reliable data are particularly important as states face more limited resources over the long term," the governors' group said in a document describing the proposed metrics. "Information on the progress and completion of students in higher education allows state leaders to track whether policies were successful and informs future funding decisions. Collecting and reporting data is a necessary first step for states as they seek to improve completion rates and efficiency in higher education" -- especially once those data are disaggregated by income, race and other factors that allow college leaders and policy makers to see how their policies and practices are playing out with specific, and narrower, groups of students.

Collecting data only takes you so far, though, by diagnosing the current situation and helping to set goals. The other parts of the NGA completion initiative involve a set of efforts aimed at drawing attention to (and potentially funding, through a grant program) successful practices that certain states have adopted in recent years in areas such as performance-based funding, remedial education, and more efficient ways of teaching lower-level courses and offering academic credit, especially for adult and other nontraditional learners.

The organization plans to host a national summit next winter in which it will bring together governors, state higher education executive officers, and public university presidents to work on comprehensive, cross-state strategies, hold a "learning institute" for governors' higher education, work force development, and finance aides, and provide grants to states for model programs and policies.

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