AUSTIN, TEX. -- The college “completion agenda” has helped community colleges face facts about where they fall short. But if the focus on completion gets too singular, two-year colleges run the risk of neglecting student access and even the quality of learning on their campuses.
That was the message of a panel of community college leaders who spoke Monday at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD).
“Everybody is in favor of completion. It’s a good thing,” said Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College. He also said the completion agenda can be taken too far.
The large community college in central Florida has gotten plenty of plaudits lately, thanks to winning  the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “Putting learning before completion has been good for us,” said Shugart.
A fixation on issuing more degrees and certificates runs the risk of inverting this philosophy, according to Shugart, and could encourage colleges to focus on completion before learning. He said a better approach is to stick to an ethos of “if students learn well, deeply and intentionally, more will complete.”
The panelists spoke of how the completion push, which has been led by foundations and the Obama Administration, had been successful in capturing the attention of lawmakers and the general public. That attention has come with some unpleasant scrutiny, which has caught community colleges flat-footed at times.
“We have to be better-poised,” said Gerardo E. de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College -- and, he said, better-prepared to communicate with people who are watching community colleges closer these days.
For example, the concept of completion itself has gotten garbled at times, and led to a backlash at the mistaken idea that the completion agenda is about a “degree for all,” said Mark David Milliron, the session’s moderator, who recently became chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, after serving as deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A notable example of that backlash was the assertion, made by Rick Santorum  during his surge as a candidate in the Republican presidential primary, that Obama was a “snob” for pushing more people toward college degrees.
To be clear about the completion agenda's goals, Milliron said it’s important to stress that completion is about a “family of credentials," including “apprenticeships, certificates and degrees.”
Richard Rhodes, president of Austin Community College, got a dose of the newfound public interest in community college completion shortly after he took the helm in Austin. During the session, Rhodes described how a Texas business group paid for an ad on a billboard  on the side of a highway in Austin that took the college to task for its 4 percent graduation rate, and asked: “Is that a good use of tax $?”
However, even that episode was a net win, Rhodes said. The college responded by explaining that the graduation rate cited on the billboard only referred to first-time, full-time students, who comprise only 5 percent of its total enrollment. Rhodes said the ensuing discussion gave the college a chance to talk about who it serves, and explain some of the nuance missing in graduation rates.
“I’m kind of glad it happened because it opened up the conversation,” Rhodes said.
Data and Realism
The biggest benefit of sometimes-painful discussions about completion, the panelists agreed, is their impact on campus culture. The completion agenda has helped community colleges learn more about their weaknesses, they said, and then spurred them to make improvements.
A key to that shift has been the collection of better data on student performance, the panelists said.
Rhodes was previously president of El Paso Community College. Before that college became a member of Achieving the Dream, he said he would have assumed that roughly two-thirds of entering El Paso students would have placed into remedial courses. But data collected as part of Achieving the Dream revealed that a whopping 98 percent of students had remedial needs. As a result, the college was able to better deal with the problem.
“You look at that data and say, ‘How can we live with that?’ ” Rhodes said. “And we can’t.”
The national scale of the completion agenda has also been valuable, said de los Santos, and has led to an “unprecedented alignment” between community colleges and their supporting organizations. Groups like the league, the American Association of Community Colleges and Phi Theta Kappa are all rowing in the same direction and acknowledging that student access must be balanced with completion.
The completion agenda is “forcing us to think differently and be uncomfortable,” said de los Santos, pointing in particular to a recently released report  from a commission put together by the community college association. But he cautioned that it would be a "disaster" if student access to higher education was diminished amid the completion cacophony. One commonly-cited scenario of this happening would be if colleges tried to enroll students who are most likely to graduate, at the expense of lower-income, less-prepared students.
So far, the focus on completion has been good for Valencia, Shugart said, in part because it has helped administrators and faculty members to think harder about the student experience on campus. “The most important person to care about completion is the student,” he said
That has led to coordination with the University of Central Florida and better-designed pathways toward associate and bachelor’s degrees, Shugart said, rather than the “wilderness of courses” that is common in higher education. Those changes required that the college accept that many of its students are seeking to transfer or get a job, rather than earn an associate degree. By taking a more realistic approach, Valencia has been able to boost graduation rates, such as by emphasizing an associate degree as a requirement of transfer to UCF.
“These conversations aren’t nearly as hard now,” Shugart said. “It’s coming to grips that we’re a bridge, not a destination.”