Graduation rates

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.

NCAA Panel Proposes Easing Academic Measure

Smart Title: 
Athletes who leave college in good academic standing to go pro would be dropped from calculation of teams' classroom success.

NCAA Approves Changes in Academic Policies

Smart Title: 
Athletes who go pro or leave for other reasons won't count as failures in measuring progress toward a degreee.

Barriers to a 'Seamless' K-16 System

Smart Title: 

Most of the action in American educational policy happens in the states. Their governments are primarily responsible for elementary and secondary education, and the vast majority of students in the United States attend public institutions that are also funded and governed primarily at the state level. So any efforts to improve the interaction between the public schools system and higher education, and to ease the transition of students from one to another to ensure their academic success, will live and die largely at the state level.

Student Success at Public Colleges

Smart Title: 
Institutional culture and presidential leadership matter more than specific programs and policies, study finds.

Higher Ed Commission Gets to Work

Smart Title: 
A "fascinating" discussion ensues, but diverse viewpoints may make crafting cohesive national strategy a challenge.

Cash for Athletes' Classroom Success

Smart Title: 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association plans to provide up to $7 million a year to member colleges whose athletes perform well in the classroom and another $3 million annually to help institutions improve the academic success of their athletes, association officials said Thursday.


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