College completion has quickly become a national problem and a federal priority. But the solutions and answers are likely to lie largely with the states, and two new reports lay out the scope of the challenge in individual states and offer guidance for state leaders on how best to bolster postsecondary attainment.
The first of the two reports  from the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center delineates state statistics related to a variety of factors in K-12 and higher education, and offers recommendations to improve education. The second makes specific suggestions for state policy makers on how to focus on each of the goals to attain a 55 percent college completion rate by 2025.
Currently, only 40 percent of Americans 25 to 64 years old hold an associate degree or higher. But the older members of the work force are getting ready to retire, and they’re not the ones keeping down the average: a further breakdown shows that among 25- to 34-year-olds, as well, only 40 percent have reached that level.
“This education deficit is the greatest challenge to our country, greater even than the fiscal challenge,” said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “It won’t go away unless we’re focused on the issue." Kirwan spoke at a briefing about the report, attended by about 20 higher education leaders and policy makers.
“This is an opportunity and not just a challenge,” said Travis Reindl, program director for postsecondary education at the National Governors Association, which unveiled its own college completion initiative  this month (days before the key backer of the effort, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said he would seek  the late Sen. Robert Byrd's U.S. Senate seat). Reindl said that governors can look at how states pay for education, how remediation is handled, and what kinds of education models exist for working adults. “If we gauge where we are in a more comprehensive way and move into ‘What can we do?’ -- any governor can embrace that.”
The College Board report’s solutions start in preschool and assess problem areas through high school, college and adult education. Aligning K-12 with higher education is a major step states have to take to form a comprehensive and successful educational continuum, because focusing on them separately is no longer sufficient.
“Many states don’t share data between K-12 and higher education,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “A lack of alignment means we’re not getting to them in the high schools…. We need to ask the representatives: 'Are we sharing data? If not, why not?' ”
Another area of focus is low-income and minority students. As more and more students from these demographic groups go through the education system, changes must be made to make higher education more accessible to them.
In addition to suggesting a number of initiatives to improve the K-12 system as it leads to college, the report suggests clarifying and simplifying the college admissions process; providing more need-based financial aid; keeping college affordable; dramatically increasing college completion rates; and providing postsecondary education as an essential element of adult education programs.
Retention is a place to start. The report shows that 56 percent of students entering a baccalaureate program graduate within six years, and only 28 percent of students seeking an associate degree finish within three years. The number of students enrolling in college is increasing, but the rate of two-year college graduation has slowly decreased since 2000. A racial breakdown shows that only white and Asian-American students are graduating at rates above the national average for both types of degrees.
More than half the states have below-average rates of bachelor’s degree completion, as well as retention from freshman to sophomore year. The data show that certain states are consistently ranked toward the bottom of each assessment. Arizona has the least of its high school graduates going to college and is fifth from the bottom on four-year college completion. Alaska, Arkansas, Nevada and Idaho also score consistently low on enrollment, retention and completion.
Increasing financial aid is seen as a crucial factor to success, but as tuition has increased 7.3 percent, on average, in the last year, state support has declined by 2.1 percent. Some states, however, have it good. Twenty-two states actually saw an increase in state funding last year, and in Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee, it was by more than 10 percent. These states saw increases in tuition below the national average (and in Missouri’s case, a decrease for public four-year institutions).
But is that really the solution? Missouri and Tennessee -- along with 13 other states that had increases in financial aid -- still scored below the national average for college completion at four-year institutions.
There’s a lot for state legislators to do. Roy Romer, senior adviser to the president of College Board, proposed that the report should play a role in the orientation for new legislators and become a part of their library. The NGA will also emphasize higher education at its Governors School for newly elected governors -- of which there will be many this fall.