Graduation rates

The Propaganda of International Comparisons

The latest rhetorical trope in the bad news presentation of U.S. higher education is to say -- even when home front improvements are acknowledged -- “Wait a minute! But other countries are doing better!" and rush out a litter of population ratios from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that show the U.S. has “fallen” from 2nd to 9th or 3rd to 15th place in whatever indicator of access, participation and attainment is at issue.

The trope is not new. It’s part and parcel of the enduring propaganda of numbers. Want to wake up a culture numbed in the newspaper maps to the Final Four, that places bets on Oscar nominees, checks the Nielson ratings weekly, and still follows the Top 40? Tell them someone big is down. In the metrics of international economic comparisons we treat trade balances, GDP, and currency exchange rates the same way, even though the World Economic Forum continues to rank the U.S. No. 1 in competitiveness, and the recent strength of the dollar should tell anyone with an ounce of common sense that the markets endorse that judgment in the midst of grave economic turmoil.

Except in matters of education, the metrics of the trope are false, and our use of them both misguided and unproductive. The Spellings Commission, ETS, ACT, the Education Commission of the States, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and, most recently, the annual litany of "Measuring Up" and the College Board’s "Coming to Our Senses" all lead off their reports and pronouncements on higher education with population ratios (and national rankings) drawn from OECD’s Education at a Glance, and assume these ratios were passed down from Mt. Sinai as the tablets by which we should be judged.

The population ratios, particularly those concerning higher education participation and attainment for the 25-34 age cohort, well serve the preferred tendency of these august bodies and their reports to engage in a national orgy of self-flagellation that purposefully neglects some very basic and obvious facts.

To be sure, U.S. higher education is not doing as well as we could or should in gross participation and attainment matters, but on the tapestry of honest international accounts, we are doing better than the propaganda allows. When you read reports from other countries’ education ministries that worry about their horrendous dropout rates and problems of access, you would think they don’t take population ratios seriously.

Indeed, they don’t, and one doesn’t need more than 4th grade math to see the problems with population ratios, particularly in the matter of the U.S., which is, by far, the most populous country among the 30 OECD member states.

None of our domestic reports using OECD data bothers to recognize the relative size of our country, or the relative diversity of races, ethnicities, nativities, religions, and native languages -- and the cultures that come with these -- that characterize our 310 million residents. Though it takes a lot to move a big ship with a motley crew, these reports all would blithely compare our educational landscape with that of Denmark, for example, a country of 5.4 million, where 91 percent of the inhabitants are of Danish descent, and 82 percent belong to the same church.

For an analogous common sense case, Japan and South Korea don’t worry about students from second language backgrounds in their educational systems. Yes, France, the UK, and Germany are both much larger and more culturally diverse than Denmark, but offer nowhere near the concentration of diversities found in the U.S. It’s not that we shouldn’t compare our records to theirs; it’s just that population ratios are not the way to do it.

OECD has used census-based population ratios to bypass a host of inconsistencies in the ways its 30 member countries report education data, but, as it turns out, the 30 member countries also employ different census methodologies, so the components of the denominator from Sweden are not identical with the components of the denominator from Australia. With the cooperation of UNESCO and Eurostat’s European Union Labor Force Survey, and occasionally drawing on microdata from what is known as the Luxembourg Income Study, OECD has made gallant efforts to overcome the inconsistencies, but you can’t catch all of them.

When ordinary folk who have no stake in education propaganda look at those 30 countries and start asking questions about fertility rates, population growth rates, net immigration rates, and growth in foreign born populations, they cannot help but observe that the U.S. lives on another planet. Only 4 countries out of the 30 show a fertility rate at or greater than replacement (2.0): France, New Zealand, Mexico, and the U.S. -- and of these, Mexico has a notable negative net migration rate. Out of those 30 countries, 7 have negative or zero population growth rates and another 5 show growth rates that might as well be zero. On the other hand, the U.S. population growth rate, at 0.9 percent, is in the top five. In net immigration through 2008, only Australia, Canada, and Ireland were ahead of us (and we count only legal immigrants). Triangulating net immigration, one can examine the percentage growth in foreign-born populations over the past 15 years. In this matter, the Migration Policy Institute shows the U.S. at 45.7 percent—which is more than double the rate for Australia and Canada (I don’t have the figures for Ireland).

It is no state secret that our immigrant population is a. young, b. largely schooled in other countries with lower compulsory schooling ages, and c. pushing the U.S. population denominator up in the age brackets subject to higher education output analysis. Looking ahead to 2025 (the College Board’s target “accountability” date), Census projections show an increase of 4.3 million in the U.S. 25-34 age bracket. Of that increase 74 percent will be Latino, and another 12 percent Asian. Can you find another country, OECD or otherwise, where an analogous phenomenon is already in the cards -- or is even somewhere in the deck, waiting to be dealt? As noted: the U.S. lives on a different demographic planet.

We are often compared with Finland in higher education matters----and to our considerable disadvantage. I will give the Finnish education system a lot of credit, particularly in its pre-collegiate sector, but the comparison is bizarre. Like Denmark, Finland is a racially and linguistically homogenous (mandatory bilingual, to be sure, in Finnish and Swedish) country of 5 million, with a population growth rate of 0.1% and a net immigration rate of 1% (principally from Eastern Europe).

In the 1990s, Finland increased the capacity of its higher education system by one-third, opening 11 new polytechnic institutions known as AMKs (for the U.S. to do something equivalent would require establishing 600 new AASCU-type 4-year colleges). So the numerator of participation in higher education increased considerably, bolstered by fully-subsidized tuition (surprise, anyone?), while the denominator remained flat. Last time you looked, what happens to percentages when numerators rise and denominators don’t?

And there is more to the Finnish comparison: the median age of entrance to higher education in Finland is 23 (compared with 19 in the U.S.) and the median age at which Finnish students earn bachelor’s degrees is 28 (compared with 24-25 in the U.S.). In our Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 1995-2001, those entering 4-year colleges in the U.S. at age 23 or higher constituted about 5 percent of 4-year college entrants, and finished bachelor’s degrees within 6 years at a 22 percent rate (versus 65 percent for those entering directly from high school). Is comparing Finnish and U.S. higher education dynamics a fair sport? If you left it up to the folks who produced the Spellings Commission report, Measuring Up, and Coming to Our Senses, it is.

International data comparisons on higher education are very slippery territory, and nobody has really mastered them yet, though Eurostat (the statistical agency for the 27 countries in the European Union) is trying, and we are going to hear more about that at a plenary session panel of our Association for Institutional Research next June. What does one do, for example, with sub-baccalaureate degrees such as our "associate," for example? Some countries have them -- they are often called “short-cycle” degrees -- and some don’t. In some countries they can be considered terminal degrees (as we regard the associate), in other countries they are not considered higher education at all, and in still others they are regarded as part of the bachelor’s degree.

Instead of or in addition to “short-cycle” degrees, some countries offer intermediate credentials such as the Swedish Diploma, awarded after the equivalent of two-thirds of a baccalaureate curriculum. Are these comparable credentials? What’s counted and what is not counted varies from country to country. I just finished plowing through three German statistical reports on higher education from different respected German sources in which the universe of “beginning students” changed from table to table. A German friend provided a gloss on the differences, but the question of what gets into the official reporting protocol went unanswered. You can be sure that the people who put together the Spellings Commission report, Measuring Up, and Coming to our Senses never thought about such things.

Why is all this important? First, to repeat the 4th grade math, which Jane Wellman tried to bring to the attention of U.S. higher education with her Apples and Oranges in the Flat World, issued by ACE last year. When denominators are flat or declining and numerators remain stable or rise slightly, percentages rise; and vice-versa when denominators rise faster than numerators. So if you use population ratios, and include the U.S., it’s going to look like we’re “declining”—which is the preferred story of the public crisis reports. Ironically, trying to teach basic math and human geography to the U.S. college-educated adults who wrote these reports is like talking to stones. They don’t want to hear it. Wellman made a valiant effort. So did Kaiser and O’Heron in Europe in 2005 (Myths and Methods on Access and Participation in International Comparison. Twente, NL: Center for Higher Education Policy Studies), but we’re going to have to do it again.

Second, it’s like the international comparisons invoked by business columnists. The BRIC (Brazil, India, China, and Russia) countries’ GDPs have been growing much faster than ours (though some are now declining faster than ours), but none of those GDPs save that of China match the GDP of California. It’s that big ship again: the U.S. starts with a much higher base---of everything: manufacturing, productivity, technological innovation. Both growth and contraction will be slower than in economies that start from a much lower base. Where we have demonstrable faults, the most convincing reference points for improvement, the most enlightening comparisons, are to be found within our systems, not theirs. So it is with higher education, where the U.S. massified long before other countries even thought about it. Now, in a world where knowledge has no borders, if other countries are learning more, we all benefit. The U.S. does not---and should not---have a monopoly on learning or knowledge. Does anyone in the house have a problem with this?

Third, OECD itself understands the limitations of population ratios for education a lot better in 2008 than it did a scant five years ago, and is now offering such indicators as cohort survival rates in higher education. I had hoped the authors of Measuring Up 2008 might have used those rates, and read all the footnotes in OECD’s 2008 Education at a Glance so that one could see what was really comparable with what. Had they done so, they would have seen that our 6-year graduation rate for students who started full-time in a 4-year college and who graduated from any institution (not just the first institution attended) is roughly 64 percent which, compared with other OECD countries who report the same way (e.g. the Netherlands and Sweden), is pretty good (unfortunately, you have to find this datum in Appendix 3 of Education at a Glance 2008). In Coming to Our Senses, the College Board at least read the basic cohort survival rate indicator, 58 percent, but didn’t catch the critical footnote that took it to 64 percent or footnotes on periods of reporting (Sweden, for example, uses a 7 year graduation marker, not 6). Next time, I guess, we’ll have to make sure the U.S. footnotes are more prominent.

Driving this new sensibility concerning cohort survival rates, both in OECD and Eurostat, is the Bologna Process in 46 European countries, under which, depending on country, anywhere from 20 percent to 80 percent of university students are now on a 3-year bachelor’s degree cycle. Guess what happens to the numerator of graduation rates when one moves from the old four and five year degrees to new three-year? Couple this trend with declining population bases (the UK, for example, projects a drop of 13 percent in the 18-20 year-old population going forward), and some European countries’ survival rates will climb to stratospheric levels. We’ll be complaining about our continual international slippage well into the 2030s. That will suit the crisis-mongers just fine, except none of it will help us understand our own situation, or where international comparisons truly matter.

And that’s the fourth -- and most important -- point. The numbers don’t help us do what we have to do. They steer us away from the task of making the pieces of paper we award into meaningful documents, representing learning that helps our students compete in a world without borders. Instead of obsession with ratios, we should look instead to what other countries are doing to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their higher education systems in terms of student learning and enabling their graduates to move across that world. In this respect the action lines of the Bologna Process stand out: degree qualification frameworks, a “Tuning” methodology that creates reference points for learning outcomes in the disciplines, the discipline-based benchmarking statements that tell the public precisely what learning our institutions should be accountable for, Diploma Supplements that warrantee student attainment, more flexible routes of access, and ways of identifying under-represented populations and targeting them for participation through geocoding.

These features of Bologna are already being imitated (not copied) in Latin America, Australia and North Africa. Slowly but surely they are shaping a new global paradigm for higher education, and in that respect, other countries are truly doing better. Instead of playing the slippery numbers and glitz rankings, we should be studying the substance of Bologna -- where it has succeeded, where our European colleagues have learned they still have work to do, where we can do it better within our own contexts -- perhaps experiencing an epiphany or two about how to turn the big ship on which we travel into the currents of global reform.

Now that would be a constructive use of international comparisons.

Clifford Adelman
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Clifford Adelman’s The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction and Learning Accountability from Bologna: a Higher Education Policy-Primer can be found on the Web site of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, where he is a senior associate. The analysis and opinions in this essay are those of the author, and should not be interpreted as reflecting those of the institute.

Retention Matters

The past academic year has been a roller coaster ride for those of us who work at colleges. Increasing costs, the economic meltdown, and high unemployment have many in the higher-education sphere wondering what the future will bring. Indications are that by 2020 some institutions may not be in business.

In the small liberal arts college world (aka privates), the cost of our product is already near the highest in the marketplace, and unfortunately the demographics of potential clients near the lowest. What we can do to improve the odds that our institutions not only survive but thrive in the next 10 years? Solutions seem elusive. But one key means of improving the picture already lies within our grasp. It can be summed up in one word: retention.

Consider the cost of a college degree from the frame of the strategic service concept: "The benefits perceived by the customer against total price in the context of alternatives." While the product is excellent at most small liberal arts colleges, the competitors’ product is also outstanding. Large privates, small and large publics, and community colleges are all good choices today. The problem for many privates is that their price is already out of reach for most Americans, and going in the wrong direction – while many publics charge much less .

The total annual cost at many privates is between $40,000 and $50,000; while tuition costs tend to go up an average of 4 percent a year, the increase barely covers the concomitant increase in fixed expenses (salaries, fuel, inflation, debt depreciation, etc.).

By 2020, then, the total cost for most privates – if current trends continue -- will be $60,000-$70,000 per year. The current average yearly cost at many publics -- $10,000-$20,000 -- should rise by 2020 to about $17,500-$27,500 – still a lot of money for students and families, but clearly a significant price break from the privates.

Many students emerge from college with major debt. It is commonplace for students to graduate from privates with $50,000, $75,000, or over $100,000 in loans. This is not a sustainable model as costs continue to increase. At what price point do families determine that the cost/benefit analysis does not make sense?

The clear challenge is to hold costs in higher education. It may be clear but it is far from simple. To hold or decrease expenses without limiting the product has so far seemed impossible. To increase revenues without raising tuition has been equally daunting.

Institutions need to look within first -- and retention is the place to start.

Out of approximately 2.8 million first-year college students each year, more than 450,000 do not return to the college or university they started with for their second year, according to 2008 statistics. In other words, 25 percent of first-year students do not return to the institution where they began their college career. What other industry do we know that successfully recruits 25 percent new clients each year, plans for an average loss of 25 percent of those new clients, and accepts this as business as usual?

Significant improvement in the retention of current clients is the low-hanging fruit of revenue increases for colleges and universities.

For privates, improving retention rates is one of the best solutions for reducing cost increases and maintaining revenue streams. Though the retention rates on average for privates are better than for large publics, the financial impact of each student lost is greater. A 20 percent attrition rate for a private can mean 100 or more students lost, at $30,000 or more per student. So long as freshman classes have remained sufficiently full, the strategy has been to replace lost students rather than commit more resources to retain them.

First-year students are the key to significant retention improvement, and based on the available data, the first six weeks is the most critical time for a successful transition to the college environment. It is the make-or-break period for many students regarding their academic, social, and emotional engagement with their chosen institution.

Unlike corporate America, which long ago discovered the benefits and return on extensive job-training prior to engagement, many institutions of higher education attempt to teach new students the keys to success after they arrive on campus and while they are fully immersed. The majority of transition education is similar to teaching one to swim while in the deep end.

The call is for privates to redefine the orientation and preparation process for first-semester students, and to commit sufficient resources to preparing their newest clients for success prior to their arrival on campus. Privates can and should shift attitudes and perceptions, by minimizing doubt and uncertainty, and increasing the confidence of entering first-year students. Freshman orientation is a blur of information and indoctrination, compressed into a few days, not a training process for preparing students. Colleges should shift their emphasis toward the months preceding each new academic year, and commit to providing new students with effective college-readiness training. For most colleges this will require utilizing new technologies and resources to reach their cohort in flexible ways, with minimal impact on time, energy, and resources for both the students and the colleges.

The intent is to empower students with information for success, and ultimately to improve retention rates. Pennsylvania's public college system long ago committed to improved retention, including performance indicators and rewards for retention outcomes. In October 2007, Kenn Marshall, chair of the system's board, noted that system universities received a combined $38.7 million in performance funding as a reward for showing improvement in key areas related to student achievement and efficiency.

Traditionally, many in the privates have felt that this is not their role, and have lacked the will to fully commit to efforts for improved retention. They can no longer afford the luxury of that attitude. As 2020 and $70,000 per year costs approach, and institutions look for new revenue streams, it is time for privates to reconsider their strategies to retain more of their current students. Privates may find that significant improvement in the retention of their students is one of the only solutions to cost containment and financial survival.

Bryan Matthews
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Bryan Matthews is director of athletics and associate vice president for administrative services at Washington College.

Higher Education's Big Lie

The notion that education, particularly a college degree, is the key to career success is a particularly American idea. It is what the sociologists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have called "the education gospel," a national ethos of hard work in school paying off and of equal opportunity for all. Politicians of every stripe have addressed unemployment by advising the unemployed to take individual responsibility for their futures by learning new skills and by reinventing themselves for a global economy where opportunity will materialize for those with the right credentials.

And workers have responded to the call. As The New York Times reported recently, there are now more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education than ever before. Today, women attend college in record numbers, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, the number of African American, Hispanic, and other minorities enrolled in college reached the highest levels in history.

This all seems like very good news. With millions more students attending college, it makes sense to ask whether their degrees will pay off.

First of all, it is debatable whether a majority of future job openings will require a college degree. While the economist Tony Carnevale argues that jobs that require some college education will help lead a slow and painful recovery from the current recession, The New York Times reports that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor's degree is not necessary. Furthermore, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. Conflicting claims about the economic value of a degree along with skyrocketing tuition raise a question about whether college is a good investment for all students, especially those low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years on a higher education venture that may not produce rewards.

Secondly, the issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate. In fact, college access, which is touted as a symbol of our meritocratic ideals, leads to a degree for only about half of all students who enroll. Completion rates are even lower for first-generation collegians and people of color. According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.

In fact, as the sociologist Annette Lareau has shown in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs. Opening the doors of higher education has not altered this basic arrangement. Still, the myth persists that, to get ahead in life, the first thing you ought to do is write a tuition check.

These days it is more likely that a student's first tuition bill will be paid with money from a loan. What looks like an investment in the future, however, can often turn into an economic disaster. For example, let me tell you about Valerie, an immigrant from Haiti, who had always dreamed of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. After high school in Harlem, Valerie spent six years at a private, nonprofit, open-door college in New York City accumulating credits for a psychology degree that she finally completed in 2006.

One year after graduation, the only job she could find was working as a teacher's aide (a position that did not require a bachelor's) for $14,000 per year. She also had to work as a salesperson in a clothing store to make ends meet. This might not have been so bad except that, after years of student loans, Valerie owed almost $60,000, a sum she could never hope to repay. After returning to the same college to earn a M.A. degree, Valerie found a job as a social worker earning a $33,000 annual salary. While this was a big step up from her teacher's aide job, Valerie was still unable to meet her financial obligations, and she had begun to question whether her six-year investment of time and money had been worth it. "Is this my American dream? Am I living it now?" she wondered.

There are many students like Valerie who have been led to believe that higher education is the key to a better life. We can all point to success stories in which nontraditional collegians achieve a sense of purpose and satisfaction in the life of the mind, earn degrees, and find jobs worthy of their tremendous effort and intelligence. But there is a pervasive silence in academe about the tarnished hopes and debt loads of many other students who do not complete degrees. In 2009, Public Agenda reported that most students who leave college list economic concerns as the number one reason they did not graduate. Many smart, dedicated students who want to go to college simply cannot afford to do so. And, as Valerie's case makes clear, even those students who do graduate may not find great demand for their skills at the end of a college-to-work road paved with debt.

Student loans like the ones that financed Valerie's education are the most burdensome to nontraditional collegians, especially working-class students and people of color. These students are disproportionately enrolled in institutions that do not look anything like the colleges of popular imagination in which full-time students live on residential campuses, party on fraternity row, and attend football games.

The dire situation on many campuses has been painfully documented in Inside Higher Ed by Wick Sloane, who has studied the realities of academic life for students at a two-year college in Boston. These students are commuters who sleep in their cars and attend classes in the evenings after working all day in low-wage jobs. They take their fear, stress, and economic anxiety into overcrowded classes taught mostly by underpaid, part-time teachers while "federal tax policies . . . subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student." These conditions suggest that underfunded colleges do a disservice to poor and minority students.

This is a position much at odds with the official designation of two-year colleges as democratic ports of entry to the middle class.

Don’t get me wrong. Many two-year colleges and open-door institutions have wonderful programs run by committed faculty and administrators who have the best interests of students in mind. Yet the Herculean efforts of these educators do not change the fact that many nonselective colleges serve the same function: they keep disaffected unemployed and low-income people out of the labor market by warehousing them in college classrooms where students pay handsomely for an education that may not serve their economic interests.

Making this argument is difficult because it sounds like I am discouraging low-income and minority students from going to college. This could not be further from the truth.

Rather, I am proposing that those of us working in academe begin to dismantle the myth that higher education can facilitate social mobility on a mass scale. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "the average effect of education at all levels is to reinforce rather than compensate for the differences associated with family background and the many home-based advantages and disadvantages that children and adolescents bring with them into the classroom." This is a shattering indictment of the education gospel. Dismantling this myth means being honest with ourselves and with our students about the role of higher education in reproducing class inequality across generations.

Such honesty also means acknowledging that mass access to college does not and cannot provide upward mobility to the vast majority of students who seek it. Access to higher education can only be one part of what must become a broad social movement to redress income inequality that is higher than it has been since the 1920s. College graduates, like Valerie, should be able to earn a living wage.

But we shouldn't stop there. As the Economic Policy Institute researcher Richard Rothstein writes, "It is certainly possible for retail salespersons, fast-food workers, and home health care aides to earn middle-class incomes, but this won't happen because these workers got postsecondary training." Rather, it will be because they have "much stronger minimum-wage and labor-union protections, [and] economic security with good health care."

Class is not a result of merit or effort or hard work paying off. It is largely a legacy transferred between generations. No matter how many college degrees are distributed, we still tolerate a system that doles out limited rewards to all but a privileged few. In this climate, the pursuit of elusive degrees more often functions as a distraction from what really provides security to families and children: good jobs at fair wages, robust unions, affordable access to health care and transportation, and a sound, affordable education for everyone, regardless of background.

These are all factors unacknowledged in the push to convince people that that, if they can't find a job, they should take sole responsibility for their fate, sign up for that first student loan, and get their pencils ready.

Ann Larson
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Ann Larson is recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in English (composition and rhetoric) at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is a writing fellow at CUNY's Hunter College.

To What End?

For over 100 years the “Student Access Agenda” has been the driving force and single most important goal of the community college movement. This goal — to provide an opportunity for any high school graduate or 18-year-old (or older) to enroll in college — permeates every niche of the community college enterprise.

In the last two decades, and with incredible intensity in the last 18 months, a second major agenda has been emerging: the “student success agenda,” which has become the single most important goal for community colleges. As that agenda has evolved, it has morphed into the "completion agenda” as the more sharply focused goal of student success and the goal that has become an imperative for the nation.

The federal government, leading foundations, various states and individual colleges are all carving out a piece of this emerging completion agenda. There are over a dozen major national initiatives — some supported with millions of dollars unheard of in the community college world, and some supported by key national partnerships that recognize the community college as a major player in American society. This fairly recent focus — highlighted by major proposals from the Obama administration, which is also focused on completion — is a tectonic shift in the community college zeitgeist.

Community college leaders have responded enthusiastically to the president’s charge. In April, at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Seattle, six leaders representing some of the most influential community college organizations in the nation signed a “Call to Action.” The statement called for a “dramatic increase” in student completion rates and promised to “produce 50 percent more students with high quality degrees and certificates by 2020." The goal was described as a “national imperative.”

Dozens of national initiatives, projects, reports and organizations are already at work on the completion agenda, including the Developmental Education Initiative, Complete College America, Voluntary Framework of Accountability, High Impact Practices, Survey of Student Engagement, Pre-College Math Project, Making Achievement Possible, National Articulation and Transfer Network, Project Win-Win, Effective Pathways in Developmental Education, and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. These are only a few examples of the rich ferment in this arena; most are funded by foundations.

Like the foundations, most states are also responding to the call, with many planning or already carrying out the completion agenda. So are many individual colleges. It is unlikely than any community college, or any educational institution, will be untouched by the completion agenda. There has never been a “movement” in the community college world so widely joined and supported by such deep pockets. The completion agenda is, indeed, a tectonic shift.

To What End?

If this completion agenda proves to be successful, the outcome will be a significant accomplishment for our students and for our society. No sensible person will argue with these goals or outcomes.

Fortunately, these initiatives are led by some of the most able community college leaders in the nation, leaders who are deeply committed to the core values of the community college. They are well aware of the pitfalls and the skeletons in the closets of the nation’s community colleges; they fully understand that cynicism is the sidekick of failed promises. They know our limitations yet they persevere — because the cause is good and the cause is right.

Great movements, however — especially those cast as “urgent imperatives” — often have unintended consequences, and it would be wise for all of us to consider what some of these consequences might be for the completion agenda. We must ask the question: To what end? The savvy leaders of these initiatives, of course, have not been unaware of the larger perspective raised by the question: To what end? They ask this question every day of their efforts. They worry over whether the agenda is too narrowly focused, if there are sufficient resources, if college leaders are willing and able to deliver. They wrestle, and we all need to wrestle, with all of the following issues:

The Terminal Degree. Complete can mean finished, ended, concluded; the completion agenda carries the connotation of an end point. With the completion agenda, are we in danger of resurrecting the “terminal” degree idea from the 1940s by placing so much emphasis on the degree or certificate as the primary goal — the end point of a student’s education? It took years to purge the idea of the “terminal” degree from the community college lexicon and years more to embed the principles of lifelong learning into our programs and practices. Modern society has evolved significantly in the last few decades. Today we must prepare students for the challenges of changing careers and jobs five or six times in their lives. Of course students need the skills to succeed in an initial job, but they also need the skills to cope with changes in the economy and the culture — skills to transition into their next job. While the community college leaders who orchestrate the various projects of the completion agenda understand and support core concepts of lifelong learning and would never describe the degree and certificate outcomes as “terminal,” we must make sure the federal and state agencies that champion the goals of completion do not make the assumption that our (and their) work is finished when the students receive these initial degrees and certificates.

A Liberal Education. As we create new pathways to success for our students, we need to review how we can infuse our programs with core values and concepts from liberal education — what the Association of American Colleges and Universities calls “Essential Learning Outcomes” — to ensure that our graduates and certificate holders will be able to make informed decisions and use clear judgment about how they invest and spend their resources and their lives.

Simply stated, a sound liberal education is designed to liberate students from ignorance; in our current society ignorance has many champions with seductive spokespersons in the national press and among well-known political leaders. We need to resuscitate Earl McGrath’s early definition of general education — a common core of knowledge for the common person — to help our students develop coping skills, life skills, and team skills so they can create a satisfying philosophy by which to live and by which to contribute to the general welfare. General education is a corollary of liberal education, but both have suffered in application in the community college curriculum. Are we giving sufficient attention to incorporating liberal and general education in the new pathways to degree completion? Can we take the time to address “quality of life” issues for these students to help them succeed in fulfilling careers and contribute to the betterment of society rather than becoming, for example, skilled government bureaucrats who fail to grasp the impact of their actions or Wall Street analysts motivated primarily by greed?

A Very Big Deal. The completion agenda, as the Lumina Foundation says, is a “Big Goal.” The promise is no less than making sure the U.S. remains “globally competitive” and reinvigorates the “middle class” so that it, once again, plays a pivotal role in American culture. Community colleges have always been assigned, as Frank Newman once said, the toughest tasks of higher education; with the completion agenda community colleges have been assigned perhaps the toughest task ever in higher education.

No question but that the community colleges are the right institutions to be assigned this task; they have the right philosophy, the right programs, and they are strategically located in the right places. But everything is not quite right: at many institutions, success rates in the past have been dismal; enrollments have greatly expanded while resources have been greatly reduced; the faculty and the leaders who made the community colleges great have been retiring in record numbers, and the leadership and staff development programs cannot keep up with the demand for replacements; the colleges are still primarily staffed by part-time faculty who instruct a study body that is primarily part-time. These are not the best conditions for taking on a mandate to change the world.

But the community colleges will take on this job, and they will do their best to achieve the goals of doubling the number of degree and certificate holders in the next several decades. As they engage the completion agenda, the leaders of community colleges should consider several key questions: What will they do when the foundation funds dry up, as they surely will? How will they balance the needs of other programs and other students not connected to or interested in the completion agenda? Will the leaders use the completion agenda as leverage for reforming other key components of the college? How will community colleges adapt when the next administration in the White House changes course? If the community college does not succeed in meeting the goals of this agenda, how will it be viewed by the federal government, state governments, foundations, and the rest of higher education when it volunteers to step up to the plate the next time society comes calling?

A Chance for Reform. When the social order is rumbling with change, when new movements are afoot, when fear stalks the land, when money flows from the heavens — when there is a tectonic shift in the community college zeitgeist — there is great opportunity to change our routine; there is opportunity for significant reform. The completion agenda opens the door for reform, serves as a trigger moment that can unleash pent-up frustrations with resistance and propel champions of reform to the forefront.

Highly visible as a national imperative, strongly supported by the movers and shakers from the White House to the state houses, the completion agenda is a formidable spearhead for reform efforts that have been brewing over the past several decades. Thoughtful community college leaders will recognize the completion agenda as an opportunity to leverage change and will capitalize on the energy and the resources to bring about changes in the traditional architecture of education. Roger Moe, a state legislator in Minnesota, described the challenge of reform when he said “Higher education is a thousand years of tradition wrapped in a hundred years of bureaucracy.” Most reform efforts tinker around the edges of tradition, but the completion agenda has the potential to open wide the doors to reform — of placing on the table for examination the core structures, programs, policies, and practices that contribute to or stand in the way of student completion. This is the moment to follow the recommendations of the Wingspread Group on Higher Education: “Putting learning at the heart of the academic enterprise will mean overhauling the conceptual, procedural, curricular, and other architecture of postsecondary education on most campuses.” This is a powerful game-changing recommendation if we mean that “learning” is the same thing, or at least is deeply reflected, in what we mean by degree and certificate completion.

But there is another side to this potential of reform created by the completion agenda; there is the danger of a collective momentum to create streamlined pathways to completion by applying the industrial and factory models of education in which a turn-key process moves our students efficiently through the system. As the advocates of the completion agenda chant “Farther, faster” as their mantra, they may settle for piecemeal reform, creating an island of reform for pathway completion which will be ingested by the traditional bureaucracy of education when the goal no longer seems an “imperative” or when funds run out. The completion agenda may alas prove to be the enemy of reform rather than its champion.

We have engaged these and similar issues many times in the past, and we always seem to come out the other side by hanging onto a pendulum that swings too far in one direction or another. With the completion agenda, we are this time clearly swinging in a direction that could prove to be off balance. We can help balance that swing in mid air now, or we can mount another movement in a decade or so and undo all this good work as we push the pendulum in the opposite direction. It would be uncharacteristic of us — some might even say un-American — to delay this rush to course/program/certificate/degree completion in order to engage and explore in more depth the issues of our overall purpose and what we mean by a truly educated person. We don’t have to delay these numerous efforts to increase the number of certificates and degrees, and we should not, but we should expand the discussion and the plans to make sure that if we are successful in doubling the number of completers we have accomplished a goal worthy of our role in changing the lives of our students and contributing to the continuing development of our democracy.

Terry O'Banion
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Terry O'Banion is president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

A Federal Impediment to Quicker Degrees

In February 2009, at a meeting of the American Council on Education, I challenged a group of university presidents and other leaders of higher education to focus on the need for greater innovation in higher education. I encouraged those leaders to heed the lesson offered by George Romney to the auto industry in the 1970s to innovate or lose their advantage: “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success,” he said. I followed up in October 2009 with an article in Newsweek entitled "The Three-Year Solution: How the reinvention of higher education benefits parents, students, and schools."

The response has been pleasantly surprising.

Over the past year and a half, a growing number of institutions of higher education came forward with proposals to offer three-year degrees to their students. Here are a few examples:

  • Grace College, in Winona Lake, Ind., is offering an accelerated three-year degree in each of its 50-plus major areas of study. Dr. Ronald Manahan, Grace's president, cites the cost of college as a driving force behind the decision. “We have listened to people’s concerns about [the cost of] higher education and we are answering them,” he said.
  • Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pa., is offering a three-year bachelor of interior architecture without summer classes, allowing students to get into the job market a year earlier. School officials have reconfigured the four-year degree by cutting Studio classes from 14 weeks to just seven, and when compared to similar programs, these students graduate two years earlier.
  • Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Tex., is offering an accelerated three-year medical degree, rather than the usual four. The program is aimed at making it easier and more affordable for students to become family doctors.

As institutions of higher education look into the possibility of offering a three-year degree, some have run into federal policies that seem to interfere with their ability to innovate. For example, this May I received a letter from Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, describing a potential obstacle to a three-year degree surrounding student loans.

Here’s the issue: Under the Higher Education Act, student loan limits are tightly set to prevent over-borrowing by students. Federal annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits establish a maximum amount one can borrow under the federal student loan program. The annual loan limits are designed to pay for two semesters per year (see chart below).

Example: Scheduled Academic Year

Academic Year Semesters


Loan Amount



Scheduled Academic Year 1



Fall 2010 and Spring 2011






Scheduled Academic Year 2



Fall 2011 and Spring 2012






Scheduled Academic Year 3



Fall 2012 and Spring 2013






Scheduled Academic Year 4



Fall 2013 and Spring 2014















For most institutions of higher education, and most students, this works and makes sense. But 3-year degree students often take a third semester’s worth of classes over the summer. The federal limits appear to prevent students from obtaining a loan to pay for those summer courses.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Working with the Congressional Research Service, and the staff of the U.S. Department of Education, my office has identified an option that exists under current regulations to give flexibility on these loan limits to institutions of higher education and students. Instead of following a standard “Scheduled Academic Year” as outlined above, an institution of higher education offering a three-year degree could award loans to students through a “Borrower-Based Academic Year," per the chart below:

Example: Borrower-Based Academic Year

Academic Year





Loan Amount



Scheduled Academic Year 1



Fall 2010 and Spring 2011






Scheduled Academic Year 2



Summer 2011 and Fall 2011






Scheduled Academic Year 3



Spring 2012 and Summer 2012






Scheduled Academic Year 4



Fall 2012 and Spring 2013















This option would use the same annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits, but compress them to match the student’s academic schedule. Compared to the typical “Fall-Spring” academic year over each of the four years, a three-year degree program could use a “Fall-Spring, Summer-Fall, Spring-Summer” structure to allow for a compressed academic schedule.

I have been told that this “Borrower-Based Academic Year” option is currently not well used because it is administratively complicated for institutions to offer both “Scheduled Academic Year” and “Borrower-Based Academic Year” loan structures at the same time for individual students. But for an institution that offers a comprehensive three-year degree program involving a number of students, this seems to make sense as a way of helping students in that program afford the tuition and fees.

I have asked Chancellor Cheek to let me know if this option would work for the University of Tennessee, or if more flexibility needs to be added. When Congress last reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, we made several changes to the Pell Grant program to allow that funding to be used on a year-round basis. There is no reason students should not have that same flexibility with their student loans.

It is my hope that more institutions will explore innovative ways to provide a high-quality postsecondary education. The three-year degree is one idea for some well-prepared students, but it is vital to our competitiveness as a nation that we develop other ideas to improve the efficiency of higher education and expand access to more Americans.

Institutions of higher education are rightly feeling pressure from parents, students, state and local leaders, the business community, Congress, and the Obama administration to do a better job of providing more Americans with a quality college education at an affordable price. That pressure will likely grow more intense every year as more jobs require higher education, advanced certificates, or technological skills from their applicants.

Some have asked whether all colleges and universities should be required to offer a three-year degree. My answer is a resounding no. Just as the hybrid car isn’t for everyone, all students and all institutions won’t want a three-year degree. The last thing we need is more federal mandates on higher education.

The strength of our higher education system is that we have 6,000 independent, autonomous institutions that compete in the marketplace for students. It is that marketplace that needs to develop the new ideas for the future -- and not become a victim of its own “entrenched success" -- so that our students, and our country, can continue to thrive.

Senator Lamar Alexander
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Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and as president of the University of Tennessee.

What's High School For?

We all want more young people to attend college. Who would argue with that? Politicians and educators at all levels extol the obvious virtues, from enhanced earning potential to a greater satisfaction in life. One increasingly popular way to encourage college attendance is through dual enrollment, in which students take courses in high school for both high school and college credit.

In theory, dual enrollment enables high school students to accrue college credits for very little cost and imbues them with a sense of confidence that they can complete college work. If students can succeed in college classes while still in high school, conventional wisdom holds, they will be more likely to matriculate at the postsecondary level.

In Indiana, dual enrollment is encouraged at the highest levels, with state Education Secretary Tony Bennett maintaining that at least 25 percent of high school graduates should pass at least one Advanced Placement exam or International Baccalaureate exam, or earn at least three semester hours of college credit during high school.

In reality, though, dual enrollment may do more harm than good.

Increasingly, students are turning up at college campuses with an impressive number of college credits, thereby bypassing introductory college courses. The problem is that high school is not college and completion of a dual enrollment high school class is not always a guarantee that students have learned the material. For instance, students earning a “C” in a dual enrollment English class in high school with a high school teacher are exempt from a basic writing course in college. They would immediately be placed into upper-level college classes where faculty members assume a basic skill level the students might or might not possess.

As a result, classes that used to be termed “college-prep” are now seen as college proper. The rationale is that if high schools offer the same psychology class, for example, as colleges and cover similar material, these students should be earning college credit. Dual enrollment proponents argue that high school teachers are trained by a university and follow the same syllabus. In practice, however, courses covered in a high school setting on a high school calendar are often vastly different in practice.

This is not a criticism of high school teachers. Many are excellent educators and care deeply about students. But they often teach more classes than college faculty do, have myriad extracurricular responsibilities, and lack the requisite training that enables college faculty to introduce best practices in the field. In contrast, college faculty members expect a higher level of work from students, including having them study independently, write in the discipline and be exposed to the latest research. They are less likely to offer extra credit, or evaluate students based on an inflated high school norm.

High school teachers and college faculty have different roles, equally important. The line between the two shouldn’t blur.

Even the classroom dynamic is different. High school students, especially sophomores and juniors, are not like college students. A collection of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds are normally at a different stage of intellectual and moral development than are college students. Treating a high school student like a college student does not always do them a favor.

It is too soon to know how this phenomenon of early college will play out, but my fear is that students will be hurt. In a rush to adhere to federal and state initiatives, high schools have opened dual enrollment classes to as many students as are willing. What student would not be interested in taking college classes for little cost with their own high school teachers in a familiar setting?

We have a concrete example at Manchester College that shows how this new program may impair students. Manchester admitted a student from a celebrated articulation program between an Indiana two-year college and a high school with a strong academic reputation. This student, as a sophomore in high school, earned a “C” in a “college” English course, which exempts her from our basic English 111 College Writing class. Even though her ACT score indicates her writing skills are deficient, we are limited in what we can do.

Like many students who have already passed a “college” class, she thinks she already has the necessary writing skills to be successful in college. We know she very likely does not. Our willingness to increase student access by accepting transfer credit means that, without taking this student’s credits away, we cannot help her with her writing. Instead, by virtue of an average performance as a high school sophomore, this student will be placed into college classes for which she is unprepared.

Many students who presumably have taken more-rigorous writing classes in high school receive no college credit. They are, however, better prepared to succeed at college.

High schools are looking for willing university partners to sanction classes they are already teaching. Colleges are looking to facilitate transfer students; are no longer differentiating between courses taught at accredited colleges and those in a high school.

Other programs like AP (Advanced Placement) make an attempt, however imperfect, to assess student learning using a standard national examination. Colleges feel better about accepting credits when students demonstrate mastery of material on a recognized exam. However, the percentage of high school students able to do well enough on the AP exam to earn college credit is very small.

Most colleges willingly accept credits from like institutions because we trust that our courses are equivalent and that our faculty are credentialed. I doubt that same trust applies to high schools. The best service a high school can provide is to prepare students for college, not substitute for it.

The more we try to expedite learning, the more we send students mixed messages about the distinction between a high school and college education. And we cheapen a college education by making it seem accessible to nearly everyone despite the age and ability of the student or the qualifications of the teacher.

Glenn Sharfman
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Glenn Sharfman is vice president and dean for academic affairs for Manchester College, in Indiana.

A Program Is Not a Plan

One of the main thrusts of what has come to be called "the undergraduate student success movement" is misguided. Yes, we did mean to use the term "misguided." A strong word and a strong assertion, but we have equally strong evidence. Simply stated, higher education institutions in the United States focus heavily on student success programs, but rarely do they have a comprehensive plan to guide those programs. In the absence of a plan, redundancies and gaps occur, and retention stagnates. In short, a program or programs do not a successful plan make.

Of course, making this assertion means that John Gardner, one of this essay’s authors and a key architect in the national student success movement, has to admit that over the years he may not have given the best advice to all people at all times. For about three decades, Gardner has gone around the country telling college educators that their institutions need to adopt or adapt one form of student success program or another. Drawing from his experiences, the recommended program was often a first-year seminar -- a contemporary staple in the American college curriculum that dates back to the 1880s. And, in fact, research does correlate participation in first-year seminars with positive differences in student retention and graduation rates.

At the same time that Gardner was advocating for first-year seminars in particular, he was also advocating for a broader philosophical approach to the first year. He coined the term, “the first-year experience,” and meant it to encompass a total campus approach to the first year, not a single program. Upon reflection, it seems that speaking about one program extensively while at the same time advocating for a collective approach may have fostered a bit of confusion. And today the “first-year experience” can mean anything from a single course to a full-fledged coordinated effort to improve the first year. But it was the single course that gained the most national and international interest.

Gardner himself ran University 101, a first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, for 25 years, and then helped replicate this course type at many other institutions. Colleges and universities often adopted first-year seminars because they increased retention rates, and thus increased tuition revenue. Educators were hunting for the silver bullet -- the “program” that would bring about miraculous student-saving and money-making results. This search for the ideal program also became subsumed under the language of “best practices.” The idea was very simple: there are best practices out there, they can be identified and replicated with minimal thought given to context, and these best practices should yield the same results everywhere. But retention improvements that resulted from one-shot programs have generally been short-lived and, taken together, have failed to move the national retention statistics in a positive direction.

Fast-forward several decades, and this search has been intensified. A plethora of organizations and consultants now exist to feed the hunger for specific programmatic solutions to the retention problem. Clearly it is time for a change.

Beginning in 2003, with support from several foundations, the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education launched a process, called Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year -- a self-study and planning process designed to help campuses move beyond “programs” and “best practices” to the development of a comprehensive intentional plan for the first year. Participants in the Foundations of Excellence process are encouraged to answer a fundamental educational question: What does our college or university need to do to provide an excellent beginning experience for all students relative to our unique mission, location, and student characteristics? To answer that question an institution first needs to assess how it is currently performing vis a vis standards of excellence for the first college year. The process provides nine such standards. Finally, once the plan has been created, institutions must implement it.

But implementing a plan is more easily said than done. Our own research on the effectiveness of the institute’s work with 197 institutional participants has found that the two most significant variables that interfere with executing a plan are a change of senior leadership with its resulting destabilizing effects, and the impact of unforeseen budget cuts.

We have also learned from successes. Over 95 percent of the campuses with which we have worked report implementing action plans. An independent analysis of Foundations of Excellence found that campuses that implemented the plans to a self-reported “high degree” recorded significant first-to-second year retention rate increases -- an aggregate 5.62 percentage points or 8.2 percent higher over four years as reported by IPEDS. Institutions that did not implement their FoE action plans experienced a 1.4 percentage point decrease in retention -- in other words, if you don’t implement the plan you have, you seem to get attrition. To plan is not enough. The executed plans included a combination of changes in institutional policies, a renewed focus on pedagogy in first-year courses, and particular programs -- yes, programs -- that were intentionally selected to address the unique needs of the institution and its students. For example, institutions connected their learning community offerings with their evolving core curriculums to maximize the success of both efforts; orientation programs were expanded to include and serve previously underserved and/or completely unserved populations such as low-income and transfer students; and oversight offices and/or committees were created to intentionally connect previously disparate pieces so that learning opportunities were not left to chance.

In conclusion, our experience leads us to convey that while programs are necessary, unless they are conceived and carried out as parts of a whole, they are not sufficient. What we believe is that institutions need to undertake a thorough planning process focused on excellence in the first year. Appropriate programs and best practices can then organically emerge and/or be modified, executed, assessed, and refined in context.

Institutions cannot fulfill their potential for improving student success without a comprehensive vision for excellence in the first year. Thus, we encourage you to recognize that the future of our students is too important to leave to chance. Instead, we hope you and your institution will become more intentional and deliberate in the way you commit to first-year excellence. In the process, you will be contributing nationally as you act locally to create the change and foster growth that our students and country require.

John N. Gardner and Andrew K. Koch
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John N. Gardner is president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and distinguished professor emeritus and senior fellow at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina.

Andrew K. Koch is vice president for new strategies, development, and policy initiatives of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

Funding Completion

Leading a college or university today is more challenging — and more important — than ever. It's no exaggeration to say that the future of the American economy rests with how well our postsecondary system educates our young adults.

Severe shortfalls have meant that in nearly every state and college system, budgets are being stretched and cut in ways that few have seen before. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can't fill those budget gaps, but we and our partners can spark the discussions and research necessary to help find the best way forward.

Today, Complete College America (an effort supported by the Gates Foundation and four other national philanthropies) is inviting all governors to take the Completion Innovation Challenge. The 10 governors with the most innovative and inventive proposals to significantly boost college completion in their states each will receive a $1 million grant. The idea is to encourage state leaders to enact real change and lasting impact by helping them take on big ideas, like performance funding, revamping developmental education and exploring new delivery models – even in these tough economic times.

Some of you may be chuckling right about now. "Sure," I can hear you say. "We’ll focus on these things just as soon as we figure out how we’re going to keep the lights on."

Things are bad out there, it's true. California is poised to carve $1 billion out of the state university system, reducing its support to 1998 levels. Michigan is reducing student financial aid 61 percent. Even steady South Dakota, home to one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, was forced to hike tuition 4.6 percent to help cover its cuts. We understand that these are tough times. No one supports drastic reductions in education funding, especially when we know that education is the key to our nation’s long-term economic recovery. But that is also the primary reason completion is more important than ever. Because if not now, then when?

Forecasters predict that by 2018, at least 63 percent of American jobs will require some sort of postsecondary credential or skill set. In terms of sheer numbers, employers over the next seven years will need to hire 22 million workers with college-level skills, yet the U.S. will produce just 19 million of them over that time – and that’s before these budget cuts are taken into consideration.

To simplify it further: if current trends continue, the education level of the average American worker is projected to decrease for the first time since 1940, when the Census first began tracking it.

The deficits governors and legislators are wrestling with are long-term problems disguised as a short-term crisis. It's true that the recession has exacerbated these shortfalls, and federal stimulus backfill is gone, leaving a gaping hole. But the root causes of this problem are structural. Many state spending plans have locked in substantial annual increases, and there is simply not enough economic growth in either the short or long term to maintain the status quo. Even when the economy recovers, the problems will persist because costs will continue to grow.

Higher education systems and campuses are going to have to be smarter with the resources they have. No more nibbling at the edges in an attempt to wring efficiencies out of a higher education model built in a different era. I believe we are nearing a watershed moment in American higher education. We can either keeping doing things the way we’ve always done them, with less money and diminishing success. Or, we can make the bigger structural reforms we need – strategically and smartly. Realistically, this is our best option for long-term success.

American postsecondary schools spend an estimated $2 billion on remedial programs in which half the students don’t finish. Between 2003 and 2008, American taxpayers spent an estimated $9 billion supporting first-year students at four-year colleges and universities who never returned as sophomores. When we’re spending billions on programs that don’t result in graduates, it’s easy to see how completion relates to our current budget issues.

When we talk about "completion" at the Gates Foundation, we're speaking about creating a postsecondary system that addresses fundamental issues by being smarter with its dollars and by offering programs that fit the lives and needs of today’s student. It’s a system where access and quality go hand in hand, where one is not sacrificed for the other.

Many higher education leaders already understand this. Valencia Community College, for example, posts graduation rates that are 15 percentage points above its peer institutions, despite receiving no more – and no fewer – resources. How do they do it? President Sandy Shugart says they stopped spending so much money and energy trying to get "butts in the seats" and instead began "seeing the college through the eyes of the student."

As a result, the leaner administrative processes allowed the college to invest far more of its resources into counseling and career services, which in turn helps get students to degrees and drive up completion rates.

When Melinda Gates launched our Completion by Design initiative last fall, we asked for groups of reform-minded college presidents and postsecondary leaders to step forward. Scores of them did, despite the tough economic times and the fact that the project seeks nothing less than the total redesign of a community college system.

A total of 27 cohorts applied for Completion by Design, representing 139 colleges from nine states. Collectively, these institutions educate nearly 1 million full-time students, or about 23 percent of all enrollments at public two-year institutions.

In October, when we announced the first wave of digital Next Generation Learning Challenges, we were hoping $20 million in potential funding would energize entrepreneurs, technologists and educators to tackle high-enrollment, low-completion courses such as developmental education and "gatekeeper" courses. Again we were amazed by the response – 600 submissions to the initial RFP, representing well over 1,000 organizations.

These examples tell us that, especially in these lean budget times, there is a real thirst in higher education for new models, new thinking and smarter ideas. And that’s one reason why the foundation is excited to support Complete College America’s Completion Innovation Challenge. It provides those reform-minded governors and leaders another important avenue for resources and support.

Complete College America is a national organization whose sole mission is to work with states to increase the number of Americans with college degrees or certificates. They have both the policy expertise and campus-level experience to know the challenges you face and how you can mitigate or overcome them.

Dramatically improving the nation’s completion rate can seem daunting and impossible. It’s understandably hard to consider retrofitting the airplane you are flying when two of its engines are aflame. We hear you.

But there is a reason why necessity is the mother of invention. And higher education, if it’s going to meet the needs of students and the nation’s economy, is in need of innovation and invention.

Hilary Pennington
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Hilary Pennington is director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

An Alternative to Graduation Rates

When college presidents and other higher education leaders talk about federal policy these days, the most common theme is dismay at proposed new regulations from the Department of Education. But a close second is the inadequacy of data from the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for evaluating anything.

This is a problem that has vexed us for years, and it's time for us to do something about it.

Every sector is affected. Colleges with many students transferring out to other colleges complain that even when those men and women graduate from the second institution, they still count as failures for their first college.

Universities with large numbers of entering transfer students know that even when they graduate they will not count as successes anywhere in IPEDS accounting. Juniors entering with degrees from community colleges will not help the statistics of their new university when they receive a B.A. or B.S.

Colleges with large percentages of part-time and commuter students know that they normally take longer than six years to graduate. Everyone reminds each other that a large percentage of Americans graduating from college now have credits from more than one institution, often more than two institutions. Many people taking courses at community colleges do not intend to complete degree programs.

Yet six-year graduation rates from the first point of entry are the only figures we seem to have for evaluating completion success. IPEDS data are not useful for management purposes, but they can be outright dangerous for policy making, particularly if leading to conclusions that whole segments of our country can be written off as not college-worthy. The figures are least reliable for low-income populations who do have to “stop out” some semesters, who are more likely to attend part time, more likely to need time for pre-college courses because of weak high schools, more likely to transfer, and more at risk.

So, rather than leaving this for the U.S. Department of Education to fix, I am challenging colleagues in higher education to design an alternative system that is more valid, reliable, and useful.

My institution, Heritage University, in the Yakima Valley of Washington, is one of the institutions fully committed to creating opportunities for a region’s underserved, low-income, largely minority and almost entirely first-generation-college population that, by and large, has not been well-prepared by local high schools. Until my arrival last summer, Heritage’s founding and only president, Kathleen Ross, had for 28 years been building an inspirational learning environment with thousands of success stories from that population. Many of those graduates are not only productive citizens but also leaders in the Pacific Northwest, reaching goals no one would have imagined possible for them before they came to Heritage.

Most Heritage students, to be sure, do need pre-college developmental work; almost all have to hold jobs; many have to “stop out” for a semester from time to time. Some 70 percent are women, many of them single parents determined to raise their families up out of poverty. Graduation figures in the IPEDS data for those who entered at the start of the last decade look miserable at first glance, something like 18 percent in six years. A certain portion of that deficiency derives from Heritage having had in its early years an enrollment policy a bit too close to open enrollment for a college with high standards.

The history of Heritage has been, in effect, a search to understand which students can be remediated to do rigorous college work and which, despite a high school diploma and a respectable grade point average, lack the academic skills and work ethic to succeed. As a consequence Heritage, now with much time-tested data at its disposal, is advising a number of applicants in other directions; is developing stronger pre-college modules for those with ability and commitment to succeed; and is investing in robust advising to complement academic rigor.

One might hope that Rich Vedder, who in a recent Forbes blog post suggested Heritage might best be shut down for wasting Pell Grant dollars, would reconsider that conclusion and decide that Heritage is actually a very good Pell investment in America’s future.

For if he and others study the data more closely, they'll also learn that of those students who actually matriculated as full-fledged freshmen between 2003 and 2005 -- that is, students who had completed any necessary remedial work -- the 8-year graduation rate was 41 percent, not including those who transferred to another college. Of those who successfully became sophomores at Heritage, the graduation rate was 81 percent. Of those who became juniors, as well as those who transferred in as juniors from community colleges, the graduation rate was 81 percent. In each of those last three data sets, Heritage University compares quite favorably with other colleges that have comparable populations. Hundreds of other colleges, moreover, have good stories to tell if they can use metrics that are truer to and more relevant to actual performance than are the IPEDS data.

So Heritage is now developing a metric to assign to every entering student -- based on credits transferred, remediation needed, and planned full-time or part-time schedule -- a predictive graduation date, a benchmark against which success can be measured, with a factor also to account for those known to have transferred to another college.

This is the time, however, to challenge all of us in higher education -- the presidential associations, those who oversee accreditation, and other higher education organizations -- to come together to propose an alternative to IPEDS, or at least a parallel system, that colleges and universities themselves find useful for management and that policy makers can trust.

It must account for transfer patterns, for differential rates of progress among low-income populations, for developmental needs of students, and for the wide array of kinds of institutions in American higher education. It is complex but it is doable. It will give all of us a better system for measuring completion success rates.

John Bassett
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John Bassett is president of Heritage University, in Yakima, Wash.

The Case for More College Grads

Smart Title: 
Leading economist argues that U.S. has produced too few graduates for decades -- and that failure to reverse trend imperils economy.


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