College Chiefs Contemplate Completion

The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment lists steps institutions can take to help more students finish college.

January 24, 2013

College leaders should embrace the goal of getting college degrees into the hands of more Americans, which may require changes in campus culture and more aggressive steps to improve graduation rates, a group of college presidents from across all sectors wrote in an open letter to their peers released Wednesday night.

The letter is the final report of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group of college presidents convened by six higher education associations at the behest of the Obama administration to examine what individual institutions can do to improve college completion. The open letter is aimed at colleges across sectors, meant to put forward strategies that can be used by community colleges, private nonprofit colleges and research universities alike. (No for-profit college presidents were included on the commission.)

Several strategies focus on easing the path to graduation for nontraditional students. Others point out successful programs that could be replicated at more institutions. Some call for additional support for students at different stages in their college careers.

The letter begins with a strong endorsement of the idea that not enough Americans graduate from college: “This is an unacceptable loss of human potential -- a waste of time, resources, and opportunity,” the commission wrote. “Left unaddressed, it will hinder social mobility and impede the nation’s economic progress. This is why we have come together as education leaders to declare that college completion must be our priority.”

The first of the report’s three overarching strategies to improve completion is creating a completion-focused culture on campus. “Priority number one,” the college leaders wrote, is for presidents themselves to embrace the goal of graduating more students, and to mention that goal frequently and publicly.

Despite the early embrace of the premise of the “completion agenda,” much of the rest of the letter reflects compromises among the often divergent priorities of community colleges, private nonprofit colleges and public universities. In the report, and in a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, the college leaders cautioned frequently against “one-size-fits-all” solutions. And they stop short of embracing some of the more controversial changes that other proponents of the “completion agenda,” such as the Gates and Lumina foundations, often suggest.

While the report says that colleges should consider using prior learning assessment, or tests of students’ knowledge and skills, to award credit, it immediately goes on to emphasize that “the authority and responsibility for making academic credit decisions is clearly in the hands of institutions.” The leaders argued strongly that transferring credit could be more straightforward, then added: “We do not mean to imply that any and every credit should be eligible for transfer. This must remain the decision of individual institutions.”

The report also calls for data that can better track how many students are actually completing college. College leaders, researchers and others often complain about the federal system for tracking graduation rates, which counts only first-time, full-time students, meaning that transfers or students who drop out and later return don’t count. The report calls for “an alternative methodology for calculating a more complete measure of academic progress,” but doesn’t call for a unit record system, which would track students throughout their educational careers and into the work force. Federal law prohibits the creation of such a system on the national level, and private colleges, Congressional Republicans and others strongly opposed a unit record system the last time it was proposed.

In a statement Wednesday night, Complete College America praised the presidents' report, calling it a "clear and unequivocal call for action."

"The combined impact of these powerful and respected voices should settle any remaining debate: The question is no longer whether higher education must change to meet the needs of today’s students, but how quickly our colleges and universities will implement these vital reforms," wrote Stan Jones, the group's president.

Other recommendations from the report:

  • Colleges should make class schedules more flexible for nontraditional students, including online options as well as classes offered at night and other unusual hours.
  • Choices of courses should be narrowed for students in order to prioritize completion.
  • Colleges should work to improve retention, including programs modeled on an initiative in Washington State that team-teaches basic skills along with technical training.
  • Each institution should have an official who oversees completion efforts.


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