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A group of 100 public universities will work with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to produce hundreds of thousands of additional degrees while also reducing achievement gaps for underrepresented student groups.

The college completion project, which APLU announced today, is the latest sign of greater urgency among public universities about graduation rates and student success, aided in part by performance-based funding formulas that are on the books in 35 states.

Even a few years ago, some presidents of land-grant universities would struggle to recall the student retention and graduation rates of their institutions, said Peter McPherson, APLU’s president.

“They know them now,” he said. “It’s clear that this is an important issue for universities and the country.”

Roughly 61 percent of students nationwide who first enrolled in a four-year public college or university in 2011 earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Another 3.4 percent of these former four-year university students earned a two-year degree during that period of time, while 11 percent were still enrolled in college.

The overall degree completion rate for black students at four-year publics was 50 percent, the center found, and about 56 percent for Hispanic students. In comparison, 71 percent of white students and 76 percent of Asian students earned a degree.

McPherson said the completion effort will be a big step for participating universities and the association, which is creating the new Center for Public University Transformation to manage its part of the project. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing funding for the association's initial work for the project.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said McPherson. “We’ve got to do better.”

The 100 universities will collaborate together in 10 “transformation clusters,” APLU said. The association will act as a matchmaker in helping to create the clusters, which will be formed around universities with common priorities. Some might include groups of institutions within states or regions, peer universities across state lines, or universities that are working on common student success strategies, according to APLU.

The focus for the collaborations will be to expand the use of proven completion strategies. Those might include high-touch advising and student services, co-remediation services, completion grants for students, regional transfer pathways, gateway course redesigns, and other evidence-backed approaches.

“Our focus on scaling known strategies will keep the effort lean and nimble,” APLU said, “and minimize the need for costly consultants and research studies.”

A Completion ‘Movement’?

The project is still taking shape, according to the group, and decisions about which universities will participate in specific clusters have yet to be made.

In some ways the effort resembles the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of 11 large public research universities that formed about four years ago to work together on improving graduation rates, also with a focus lower-income and underrepresented students.

The UIA, which includes the University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University, Georgia State University and Ohio State University, has announced substantial gains in degree attainment. For example, after three years, the group said, its 11 campuses were producing 25 percent more low-income graduates per year, with 100,000 additional graduates over all projected by 2025.

Bridget Burns, the alliance’s executive director, applauded the APLU project, describing the broader completion push by public universities as a growing movement.

“We’ve been trying to establish a drumbeat,” she said. “This is all exactly what we hoped would happen.”

UIA-style collaboration between research universities on academics remains relatively rare in a competitive industry, although Burns points to long-standing models like the Big Ten Academic Alliance. But increasing pressure on universities about completion rates, including by state lawmakers and in equity-minded university rankings like those produced by The Washington Monthly and The New York Times, seems to be spurring on more collaborative action.

In addition to the new APLU project, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities has created a coalition of 44 member institutions that are working on a student-success project focused on reimagining the first year of college. And the Gates-funded Frontier Set is a group of 30 colleges and universities, state systems and supporting organizations that are trying to improve student access and success.

“Working together is smarter and faster,” said Burns.

Robert L. Caret, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and APLU’s board chair, said collaboration is critical for student success and equity goals.

“From my personal vantage point, I have seen how collaboration between a public system and other state institutions produces important successes,” Caret said via email, “as we see in Maryland by having seamless ‘2 + 2’ partnerships with our state’s community colleges so that students can easily transfer to the University System of Maryland’s institutions and complete their four-year degree. There is similar potential for collaborative clusters to work effectively on a regional basis.”

One of the easiest ways for a university to improve its graduation rate is to get more selective, which tends to mean fewer students who are low income or from minority groups. Likewise, pushing completion goals typically doesn't improve a university’s research clout.

As a result, APLU’s new project will need to thread a needle of competing interests, not to mention ever-tightening state budgets.

McPherson was confident that participating universities can improve completion rates and close achievement gaps while still striving to attract more research dollars and top students.

“There’s real understanding that if you’re going to broaden your numbers of low-income, less-prepared students, you need to put in effort to help them complete,” he said, but adding that “I don’t think degree completion will replace research, nor should it.”

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