The national college completion agenda has reached an inflection point.
Republican control of the White House, U.S. Congress and most state capitols likely means less focus on the production of higher education credentials, at least those earned at traditional, four-year colleges.
Job training almost certainly will get more attention than college completion in coming years. But those two goals can be compatible. And the completion push already has begun to include looking at what happens to students after they graduate.
Inside Higher Ed spoke with 20 experts who work on college completion from a wide range of perspectives (they are listed below). Some common themes emerged.
The movement and its message have evolved during the seven or so years since the Obama administration joined with the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to go all in on a broad effort to increase the proportion of Americans who hold a meaningful postsecondary credential.
The White House at times appeared to focus on the bachelor’s degree in its completion push, particularly early on. But certificates and associate degrees got more attention from Washington in recent years. And this administration did more to elevate community colleges than any previous one, even proposing a national free community college plan based on Tennessee’s completion and work force development-grounded free community college scholarship.
"The job of the community college is going to be more important in the new administration … The administration is going to challenge us to be better connected to the economy and work force needs. But that’s something we’re doing already."
-- Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach Community College and incoming chancellor of California's community college system
Likewise, in 2014 Lumina added “high-quality” certificates to its annual tabulation of progress toward the foundation’s national goal for 60 percent of Americans to hold a college credential by 2025.
That goal, which mirrors one set by the White House, is likely out of reach. In 2014, 45.3 percent of working-age adults held a degree or a job-earning certificate, according to the most recent data from Lumina.
In 2008, Lumina’s metric showed 37.9 percent of Americans holding at least an associate degree, meaning degree attainment is up 2.5 percent during the last six years (4.9 percent of Americans held a high-quality certificate in 2014).
College completion rates have begun to climb after a two-year slide. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center this month said the six-year completion rate grew to 54.8 percent, an increase of roughly two percentage points over the previous year.
While those tepid improvements aren’t all that exciting, the numbers are moving in the right direction as college enrollments have slid, largely due to the collapse of for-profit higher education and the gradual economic recovery since the recession. College enrollments typically go down when the job market improves.
"The question nobody seems to be able to answer is what is the 'right' graduation rate, and I would argue that the answer is 'it depends.' There is no single right or wrong rate, since college completion is influenced by a multitude of factors in addition to quality. At what point do we compromise quality or access in the name of higher completion rates? At what point do we drive the cost so high in order to solve one problem that we end up creating another problem?"
-- Diane Auer Jones, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and former Education Department official during the George W. Bush administration
The completion agenda also has taken root across much of the academy, adding completion to student access as primary goals for higher education.
Many say helping ensure that more students get to graduation was not in the past viewed as central to the jobs of faculty members or even college administrators. That view has changed to a substantial extent (at times provoking worries about a cheapening of college credentials to meet completion demands). Hence the demise of the old trope “look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won't be here by the end of the year.”
Meanwhile, there’s a growing feeling among higher education experts and policy makers of both major political parties that a singular goal of having more Americans earn college credentials isn’t enough.
For one thing, achievement gaps between wealthier white students and their lower-income, more diverse peers have persisted. Academic quality remains a variable, raising the question of what, exactly, students are completing. And increasingly, higher education is under pressure to demonstrate the value of college credentials in the job market.
The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to link federal financial aid availability to how colleges stack up on student outcomes, including completion rates and graduates’ earnings data. And the White House was able to push through regulations that would sanction for-profits and vocational, nondegree programs at community colleges that fail to meet thresholds for graduates’ ability to repay their loans.
The so-called gainful employment rule probably won’t be the last attempt by the feds to hold colleges accountable for their affordability and for the job-market value of the credentials they issue. Meanwhile, performance-based funding formulas -- some of which include data on graduates’ wages -- are on the books in more than 30 states.
"There are fairly clear biases [among Republicans] about moving beyond completion, moving beyond higher education’s comfort zone."
--Tony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce
Yet support for the college completion agenda could wane if, as many suspect, an administration led by Donald J. Trump were to say that too many people are attending college. Experts say big spending on infrastructure, which the president-elect’s team has discussed, could be heavily focused on jobs for people with high school diplomas, not college credentials -- a substantial portion of Trump voters.
Equally challenging is the general public’s loss of confidence in the value of higher education. While data show that college degrees are increasingly the ticket to the middle class, just 42 percent of Americans say college is necessary for success in the work force, a 13 percent drop since 2009, according to polling by Public Agenda.
Whether or not the college completion momentum continues could depend on how “college” is defined. One-year certificates earned at a community college or for-profit institution count as “college,” too.
Leaders at the Gates and Lumina Foundations say they are undeterred about the completion agenda.
“We’re doubling down,” said Dan Greenstein, director of education and postsecondary success at Gates. He cited “unassailable facts” that “educational attainment tracks directly with earnings.”
Experts interviewed for this article included: David Baime, Anthony Carnevale, Kristin Conklin, Dan Greenstein, Steve Gunderson, Steven L. Johnson, Diane Auer Jones, Alison Kadlec, Mary Alice McCarthy, Jamie Merisotis, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Andrew S. Rosen, Jason Tyszko, Ellen Wagner and Josh Wyner.
Messaging on College Completion Is Shifting
College affordability, student debt and the likelihood of getting a well-paying job after graduation have dominated conversations about higher education in recent years.
Those measures of student success and accountability, particularly with an emphasis on a credential’s value in the labor market, will need to be at the core of the completion agenda for it to remain relevant.
"One of the most important ways to have good relationships with employers is to have direct personal relationships between faculty members and employers. The businesses don’t have any other way to communicate to the world about what they need besides platitudes and gross generalizations."
-- Steven L. Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College
In addition, the push for more students to complete college is a comfortable reform focus for the higher education industry, said Tony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“This is the kind of problem you want to have,” he said of the higher education industry, arguing that completion also misses the larger concern about value. He calls the push "industrial hygiene,” an attempt to clean up a self-serving issue.
The next iteration of the completion agenda, according to Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the for-profit sector’s primary trade group, includes a longer list of imperatives: retention, completion, employment, repayment and student satisfaction.
And the word “college” more often than not should be replaced by “postsecondary skills,” he said.
At the same, time, some observers say higher education has yet to adequately resolve even first-order questions about how its access and student success missions should fit together. As budgets tighten, particularly at public universities and small private colleges, there often are trade-offs between the two and tough decisions to make. Legitimate concerns about the completion push often are conflated with just hewing to the status quo.
Meanwhile, the nation’s widening political divisions haven’t helped advance the crucial discussion about the purpose of college.
"Strident partisanship on the left and right is a tremendous obstacle. We have lost our appetite in this country to understand across boundaries."
--Alison Kadlec, senior vice president and director of higher education and work force programs at Public Agenda
State and Local Governments Will Continue the Completion Push, as Will Colleges Themselves
College completion is a big part of the growing interest in performance-based funding at the state level, particularly in red states like Tennessee, which has perhaps the nation’s most robust completion policies.
Lawmakers in many of these states view college completion as a work force issue. Employers need more skilled workers, and for now, skills are represented by credentials. There also is bipartisan agreement that college outcomes need to improve, including along equity lines. That’s unlikely to change, given worries about the skills gap, job creation and income inequality.
“Postsecondary learning is more important than ever before,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.
Lumina has shifted its approach to more directly address the work force side of completion. For example, the foundation’s new strategic plan focuses on how to reach adults who hold some college credits but no credential, as well as people who have no higher education experience. To meet its completion goal, Lumina will need to increase attainment in the former group by 6.1 million and 5.1 million in the latter.
"Higher education continues to be a path into the middle class. … I don’t know how we do that without education."
-- Dan Greenstein, director of education and postsecondary success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Likewise, Tennessee has expanded its free community college program to include slots for returning adult students.
And while free college for all (with annual family income of up to $125,000) is on hold for now, with the defeat of the presidential candidate who championed it, Hillary Clinton, college promise programs like Tennessee’s are spreading to other states and many local communities.
As the college completion agenda matures, several experts said it will move toward a focus on jobs and on the nitty-gritty of implementing the next phases of reforms that began years ago.
For example, as colleges sought to improve graduation rates during the last eight years, they were actually looking at student progression and retention, said Ellen Wagner, vice president of research for Hobsons, a company that works on student success, including the use of data analytics.
"The completion agenda is deeply ingrained in the operating systems of our institutions."
-- David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges
That work has a financial benefit for colleges, because each student retained means one more who doesn’t need to be recruited, which can be expensive. Quitting that effort would be counterproductive.
One way to view the completion agenda, Wagner said, is an effort to “reduce friction” and barriers as students move through a P-20 education system. That’s a big job, she said. “We’re never going to be done with this.”
Don’t expect the federal government to drop its interest in completion, either.
It’s a safe bet that congressional Republicans, who may well be the driving force in federal higher education policy for the next four years if a Trump administration focuses on other topics, will seek a smaller role for the feds. But Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who will lead the two congressional education committees, are both supportive of the value of higher education and of college completion. (Foxx, though, recently told Inside Higher Ed that she didn’t know what the Obama administration’s completion agenda was.)
"Congress really does hold the cards in terms of how the issues get framed."
-- Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation
Common Ground on Alternatives to the Traditional College Pathway
The incoming Trump administration has floated the idea of an infrastructure improvement program with a $1 trillion price tag. According to Carnevale, 70 percent of the jobs created by such spending would require only a high school diploma.
Even so, some of that money would almost certainly be used for job training at colleges, particularly two-year institutions. If the funding actually happens -- a big if at this point -- it's impact on higher education would dwarf the Obama administration’s $2 billion work force program that was aimed at community colleges.
A focus on high school training would also have a higher education component. That’s because of growing interest in dual and concurrent enrollment programs, which Republicans in particular tend to favor.
More than 10 percent of high school students are taking college courses, according to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. About one-third of dual enrollments are in career and technical education courses, the alliance said, with particular growth in rural schools and those where a majority of students are ethnic or racial minorities.
Likewise, apprenticeships are growing in popularity, with bipartisan support. And supporters say apprenticeships should expand beyond technical jobs.
"The election has opened up space to talk about high-quality alternatives to the four-year degree."
-- Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America
A career and vocational focus earlier in the education pipeline is a form of “tracking,” which is more common in Europe. Tracking tends to freak out Americans, particularly when it is seen to diminish educational opportunity and if it is imposed on students, giving up on them too early.
Yet tracking, when done well, shares some common philosophies and goals with the degree “pathways” approach Gates is leading. The foundation is spending $5.2 million to help 30 community colleges in 17 states “design and implement structured academic and career pathways at scale, for all of their students.”
Free community college programs in some ways also bring together high schools and two-year colleges. Tennessee’s government, for example, says it is the “first state in the nation to have a fully funded K-14 public education.” Talking about K-14 is major shift, and one that mirrors what the Obama administration was trying to accomplish with its free community college proposal.
Other postsecondary alternatives that sit somewhere between high school and traditional college are expanding and enjoy bipartisan support. Those approaches include competency-based education programs, skills boot camps and employer certifications.
Some community colleges have begun offering competency-based credentials, through the federal government's $2 billion work force grant and in partnerships with Western Governors University. Several two-year-college leaders said competency-based programs would expand in the sector.
Some of these emerging players offer “bite-size, high-value” credentials, said Carnevale. “The labor market and costs are melting the system.”
"We need to expand the pathways. … We’re going to have a bigger tent, with different providers."
-- Jason Tyszko, executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Another rare spot of agreement between Republicans and Democrats is that the accreditation process should be reformed, albeit in different ways.
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have pushed accreditors to scrutinize student outcomes, including completion rates and employment outcomes.
Republicans seem less likely than Democrats to prod accreditors to set “bright lines” for graduation rates. And some conservatives say too much of a push on completion rates can lead to unintended consequences, including a weakening of academic standards. Faculty unions and many professors agree.
"We need educated people to fuel economic growth. … In a knowledge economy, a college education is the way to bridge the gap."
-- Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program
Yet members of both parties have sought to create alternative accreditation pathways for noncollege providers, including Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.
Lumina also has been active in exploring new forms of credentialing, with an eye toward completion and job training. If those efforts take hold, they could feature different approaches to quality control.
Deregulation, For-Profit Colleges and Open-Access Admissions
It’s been a rough five years for the for-profit sector, which has seen aggressive scrutiny, high-profile collapses, sliding enrollments and hemorrhaging revenue.
While experts disagree about the role of federal regulation in the sector’s decline, the U.S. Department of Education has been tougher with the industry in recent years, and contributed to the demise of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes, among others.
The decline of for-profits has slowed the country's overall postsecondary attainment rates. That’s not a bad thing, according to the industry’s critics, who say for-profit-issued credentials too often lack value in the job market.
Congressional Republicans plan to roll back federal regulations aimed at for-profits, including gainful employment. The Trump administration likely would back that move.
Some community colleges are worried that a major recovery by for-profits would increase competition and cut into their enrollments. “There is a palpable sense of fear” on community college campuses about for-profits rising again, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.
Yet for-profits have sustained potentially lasting damage. Many players in the industry also face structural challenges, including a price point that is a tougher sell and a stigma around the term “for-profit.”
Gunderson said the shift in Washington is an “opportunity for us to reintroduce ourselves.”
But he said for-profits are unlikely to again seek to enroll large numbers of students who are unprepared for college and face low odds of completing.
“This sector is not going back to where it was in 2010 when it focused on open access,” said Gunderson. “We cannot ever endure the experience we have had over the last eight years.”