Can American Colleges Boost Grad Rates?

Boosting college completion rates in the U.S.A. in order that we are once again “the most educated country in the world” has become an almost mantra-like goal among education policymakers, especially in Washington, D.C. But can we do it? That is the question. What policy changes would be needed, and what obstacles stand in the way?

To find that out was the charge of some two dozen leading postsecondary education policy-makers and advisors who were summoned by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-of-center think tank in Washington, D.C., to write and report on cutting-edge research about the Degrees of Difficulty: Can American Higher Education Regain Its Edge? Their conclusion, presented at AEI on Feb. 15, was a qualified “yes.” That is, they agreed that a large proportion of the U.S. population could achieve some col-lege education attainment during their lives, at different levels and even at different ages.
In fact, the unique openness of America’s postsecondary education institutions toward widely diverse students (from teenagers to adults and senior citizens of all backgrounds), structures (private, public, for-profit, nonprofit, community, state, national and global, on-site, online, real and virtual), offerings and degrees of all kinds was the (perhaps unintended) theme of the 11 reports, four panels and some 20 experts who appeared in the daylong conference. Diversity represents the obstacles, challenges and probable likelihood of America educating its widely different growing population.
The conference was moderated by the always well-organized, charismatic, often wryly funny Mark Schneider of AEI and the American Institute for Research. Four panels considered “Where We Stand,” “Sub-Baccalaureate Programs,” “Policy Problems and Solutions” and “Reform Lessons from the States.”
The central question of the conference – “how does college attainment matter?” – was perhaps best summarized by the Lumina Foundation’s Dewayne Matthews. “In the end, it’s about the quality of what is offered,” he said. Quality of the teachers, the institution, the college experience, the course content, the remediation before, the computer-enhanced education during, the degrees earned, the shift from credit-based to skills-based learning, the job perhaps to be won from it all – in the end, it’s the quality of each of these segments that makes postsecondary educational achievement matter, he said.
Another agreement was that there is a perceptible shift of the goal of education. It’s increasingly about preparing for the jobs to fol-low, about increasing skills learning that gives access to a wide range of posts, positions, professions and leadership.
“We have to produce more educated workers at all levels,” said Travis Reindl of the National Governors Association. “A lot of our growth will have to be in the sub-baccalaureate programs.”
America’s community colleges are unique to this end (according to Columbia University’s Thomas Bailey, who presented a report at the conference). They are being seen widely as a solution to the goal of increasing college attainment. But it’s other sub-baccalaureate programs such as career education (often offered by for-profit colleges), internships (usually unpaid and college-supported) and apprenticeships (usually paid and business-supported) in various states as well as in other nations (like Switzerland) that are being studied and duplicated. These were analyzed in several papers, such as the one by Diane Auer Jones of the Career Education Corporation.
Similarly, Brian Bosworth, founder and CEO of Future Works, a postsecondary regional economic development and education program, focused on the value of certificate programs. His views came from a decade in international development assistance work in Latin America; his organization is based out of Seattle, Wash., and works with national and state organizations to implement labor market and college achievement success for low-income youths and working adults.
Because of the wide range of postsecondary educational players, the panel on problems spent some time examining the challenge in the United States of credit portability. “While solutions are usually focused on streamlining credit transfer laterally between institutions (say from a community college to a four-year degree institution), there is no empirical evidence to suggest that that will increase degree attainment,” Josipa Rokas of the University of Virginia argued. “Neither does streamlining credit transfer between states. Best are alternative ways of earning credit, such as by examination, credit for work experience, military training and prior learning even living abroad.”
A big problem connected with students drop-ping out before attaining degrees is the amount of time it might take to find a required course in a major. Some students graduate with dozens of unneeded credits (and costs) that they under-took in order to maintain full-time status while waiting to take one course to finish a degree. “This could reflect a number of underlying issues from poor advising to what has recently been described as a ‘motivated, even ambitious but directionless generation that have few if any concrete plans,’” writes Rokas.
But he also sees it as a challenge for college policymakers to “push the boundaries of our thinking about higher education from a focus on credit hours and granting degrees based on hours in a classroom.” Instead, he suggests, the focus should be on whether students have learned anything or have any specific skills.
“What do degrees really mean?” Rokas asks in his paper Equalizing Credits and Rewarding Skills. “What specific competencies do they rep-resent is a question that should be asked by higher education as a whole.”
That gets back to the quality question raised by the Lumina Foundation, which Rokas also credits with raising the questions about degree relevancy. “Higher education is not simply about ‘time in the seat.’ It’s about what students can do and know at the end. It is possible that nothing short of a fundamental transformation of our understanding of the day-to-day business of higher education will be necessary to increase the production and attainment of college-end rewards that will also in the end garner labor market rewards.”