Is Completion the Right Goal?

Policy experts debate the merits of current goal-driven higher education policy; some argue colleges should focus on attainment over completion and numbers instead of rates.
February 16, 2011

WASHINGTON — In some circles, it's practically sacrilegious to question the "completion agenda," which was put front and center two years ago when President Obama laid out his goal of the United States having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade.

But at a wide-ranging research conference sponsored here Tuesday by the American Enterprise Institute, one analyst with a long history of challenging orthodoxy in higher education policy making questioned not only the realism of the goal but also whether it aims for the right targets and will encourage institutional behavior that will help the country meet its work force needs.

Arthur M. Hauptman, an independent public policy consultant specializing in higher education finance issues, kicked off the event, "Degrees of Difficulty: Can American Higher Education Regain Its Edge?," with his paper arguing that, based on underlying data, the president’s national goal for increasing degree attainment is “almost impossible to achieve in the best of circumstances.”

“I’ve never seen a conversation which is so insistent on misstated facts,” said Hauptman, who noted that he has spent nearly 40 years working in higher education policy. “We really need to get them straight.”

For example, Hauptman explains in his paper that attainment rates, defined as the “percentage of the working population who earn a degree,” have grown steadily in the United States in recent decades, whereas an underlying premise of the chorus of "completion agenda" setters is that attainment rates have been flat. He also bemoans that many educators often conflate these rates with completion rates, defined as the "percentage of entering students who earn a degree."

The former measurement is much more elucidating, he argues. Attainment rates, he writes, can track students' access to and success in higher education, show trends over time by looking at the age of workers, and differentiate between bachelor's and sub-bachelor's programs.

In addition, Hauptman argued that it would be better to set goals (and, in turn, adopt policies) that focus on increasing the number of degrees awarded instead of increasing completion or attainment rates.

A focus on completion over attainment, and on rates over numbers, may encourage colleges to behave in ways that may not be best for students, he argues. One problem with the growing emphasis on increasing completion rates is that it “diverts attention from increasing enrollments" as a strategy to increase attainment, he says. Institutional officials should find ways to increase enrollments in “academic units where utilization is low” without increasing overall pricing.

Hauptman also said that attention should be paid to increasing the number of certificates and apprenticeships, which are not counted in “traditional measures” of success but help meet work force needs, a point reinforced by several other speakers at Tuesday's event.

Hauptman bemoans policy makers who argue that “we must regain our international lead in completion rates, when we haven’t had it in decades, if ever." For example, in 1991, the United States was already ranked third behind Canada and Finland in overall degree attainment rates. Hauptman is critical of international data used to rank institutions on college completion and attainment, primarily because different countries collect information in very different ways, making for poor comparisons.

“I don’t think it helps to have broad, unrealistic goals that will never be met,” said Hauptman, referring not only to the Obama attainment goal but also to completion goals set by groups like the Lumina Foundation for Education (one of whose representatives, Dewayne Matthews, sat two seats away). “I think we will get the best bang for our buck [by] improving the preparation for students.”

Hauptman also expressed concern that focusing primarily on completion may lower educational quality. Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at Lumina, echoed that concern, saying that too much focus on completion rates may lead a push to "improve the selectivity of institutions, which won't help attainment."

Acknowledging the ongoing budget debate about maintaining the level of Pell Grant funding, temporarily boosted by recent stimulus legislation, should be maintained, Hauptman said he did not think propping up Pell Grants is likely to produce “cost-effective” improvements in completion or attainment rates.

Hauptman agues in his paper that the country should look for more innovative policies to produce improvement. For example, he suggests “expanding sub-bachelor’s programs,” “reducing time to degree” and “relying more on the private sector to accommodate bulging demand.”

Matthews, of Lumina, said he couldn't assert with confidence that Hauptman's "goals are realistic,” but said that "there’s no real debate here that more people need college degrees." Also critical of Hauptman’s paper was Travis Reindl, who oversees postsecondary education for the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.

“I’m not sure the goals are a distraction,” Reindl said. “We’re finally having a conversation that’s been lurking around for the better part of three decades.… The goal discussion has opened the door to a degree of frankness” about the need for better performance and productivity in higher education, he said.

Reindl also noted that there is a mismatch between what the higher education system is producing and what the labor marking is demanding. Though he agreed that there is going to be a lot of growth in sub-baccalaureate credentials for job seekers, he questioned whether community colleges and other institutions are properly structured to meet that demand.

Any solution to the attainment problem, Reindl argued, cannot be “too top down” from the federal government. States have to be part of the conversation, he added, noting that at least one pervasive “myth” needs “busting.”

“People are saying that state governments will bail out of this business,” Reindl said. “The state is in the higher education business for the foreseeable future, and we need to act like it.”


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