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The “completion agenda” has succeeded in its goal of creating urgency around the production of college credentials, and that awareness among policy makers and higher education’s big thinkers is momentum in itself. But with lofty completion targets set by foundations and President Obama, the agenda's advocates have a long row to hoe.

To take stock of where the college completion effort stands, the American Enterprise Institute pulled together essays from 11 researchers and policy analysts. The final product is the book Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press). Editing the volume were Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at AEI, and Mark Schneider, vice president for the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of education statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

In an e-mail interview, they jointly answer questions about what they see as key takeaways and common themes from the book.

Q. Many people still define "college" as bachelor-degree programs. How can federal and state policies encourage the production of sub-baccalaureate credentials?

A. If we’re to make progress on national attainment goals, we need to broaden our definition of “higher education.” A narrow definition not only excludes much of postsecondary education, it also ignores trends in labor market demand. The growth in middle-skill jobs, particularly in fields like healthcare and information technology, means that we are going to need more workers with sub-baccalaureate credentials.

The book highlights two particular approaches to boosting sub-baccalaureate productivity. First, several states have invested in one or two-year occupational certificate programs that have shown promising results. For instance, Tennessee’s Technology Centers boast high completion rates, low costs-per-degree, and strong labor market returns, providing the state with a high return on its investment. Other states should not simply import Tennessee’s model, and certificate programs have their own drawbacks (credits do not often transfer for further study). But there is much to learn from successful certificate programs.Mark Schneider

Second, federal and state governments should expand formal apprenticeship programs, where students learn on the job and complete academic coursework, all while earning a wage from a participating employer. Compared to other education and workforce programs, the Department of Labor’s federal apprenticeship program is woefully underdeveloped despite having a track record of success.

There’s a reticence on the part of traditional higher education to accept such “occupational” education as part of our postsecondary portfolio; indeed, faculty often use “training” as a term of derision and disrespect. Even some community college proponents have taken to disparaging certificate programs. However, to the extent that these pathways continue to provide cost-effective paths to labor market success, their success should help to overcome such backward-looking attitudes.

Q. Should short-term certificate programs, earned in less than a year, be part of the completion push -- particularly if they lead to better-paying jobs?

A. At heart, the push to boost degree completion must be about building human capital, not just increasing the number of paper credentials. When it comes to short-term certificates, this cuts in two directions. On the one hand, the easiest way to pump up completion numbers would be to churn out short-term certificates, regardless of their labor market value. This would add to our tally but do little for the country’s stock of skilled graduates. (This challenge applies across all types of credentials).

On the other hand, dismissing certificates of less than one year simply because they are shorter than other programs equates seat-time with quality instead of actually measuring it. We believe that the value-proposition of these short-term certificates is clear: increased labor market opportunity for a smaller investment of time and money than longer-term programs. But we need to develop objective indicators of the extent to which this proposition is true.

States can do so by linking student unit records with unemployment insurance wage data to provide precise estimates of the outcomes for graduates from various programs. At the federal level, the Department of Education should salvage the “gainful employment” mess to provide information about the value of different programs. With objective measures in-hand, we can make informed judgments about what credentials should be part of the completion agenda.

Q. Community colleges will have to dramatically boost degree production for the completion agenda to succeed. Can they do that while most are struggling with serious budget crises?

A. Like the rest of public higher education, the budget crises that community colleges face are real. But rather than battening down the hatches and waiting for public funding to return, reform-minded leaders have to adapt to this new normal if they wish to maintain access and improve student success.

Andrew P. KellyIt is important to remember that although community colleges are cheap for consumers, they can be expensive for taxpayers. High rates of remediation and student attrition often translate to high costs per student outcome. But rather than exploring organizational changes that would raise productivity, the response has typically been to layer new student success initiatives onto existing structures and call for more funding.

Paths forward are emerging, as entrepreneurial community college leaders around the country are asking important questions. How can colleges shift some of their instruction from brick and mortar classrooms into quality online models that lower costs and build capacity? How can they leverage a competency-based approach to reduce the time and money spent on remediation? Campuses and systems that are experimenting with these innovations are still the exception rather than the rule, and the book suggests that taking these innovations to scale across institutions has proven difficult. State and federal policies should aim to encourage this kind of experimentation and, where necessary, knock down the rules and regulations that prevent it.

Q. What role should for-profit colleges play? Can traditional colleges learn some lessons from the sector, as one chapter in the book suggests?

For-profit colleges have been the brunt of much criticism, some of it valid, much of it driven by some visceral suspicion of their very role in providing education. That said, many of for-profit systems enroll large numbers of students and have invested significant amounts of money in learning management systems to track the engagement and the progress of their students. And these same systems can measure and track the “value-added” that faculty provide in helping students master competencies. This leads to two paths in which traditional colleges could learn from these efforts by for-profits.

First, online education must be built around individualized learning through adaptive testing and adaptive learning. In order to do so, colleges use new approaches to the delivery of educational material, the assessment of student progress and the feedback provided to students and faculty. Many for-profit colleges are far ahead of traditional colleges in the development of these platforms.

Second, and more controversial, is redefining the role of the faculty. Many professors bridle at the concept of “unbundling” their role into component parts (curriculum development, choosing learning materials, test development and so on); faculty are even more resistant to the idea of any kind of standardized assessments of student competencies. Yet the learning management platforms that the large for-profit companies have developed are pushing the frontiers of assessing learning. With the absence of tenured faculty, promotion and renewal decisions can be made on the basis of value-added assessments of student learning.

The pioneering work that for-profits are doing on unbundling education and re-defining faculty roles can provide valuable insights for traditional campuses that are looking to reinvent themselves.

Q. The book discusses whether the completion agenda's goals are realistic, with some arguments for setting the bar a little lower. Will we be in a better place for trying in a decade or so, even if the target is out of reach?

A. For decades the country has focused on promoting higher education access, and this focus has paid off.  More students than ever will head off to college this fall. But as the completion agenda has made clear, far too many of those students will fail to cross the finish line. Moreover, the completion agenda has also begun to morph into a “productivity agenda” -- not only do we need to improve student success, but we have to do it in a more cost-effective manner.

While the various goals of this new agenda are ambitious, making progress is essential. The nation’s success will depend on how willing leaders are to reinvent the existing system, often over the objection of powerful, established players. As the contributors to the book make clear, tweaks to student aid programs, more articulation agreements and even replication of particular “disruptive” innovations will not be sufficient to achieve new goals. Instead, policies must encourage providers -- new and established, public, nonprofit or for-profit -- to compete with one another on the value they deliver to their students. If we wish to make dramatic improvements in student success and productivity, policies should cultivate a market that rewards those things.

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