Policy Summit: U.S. Higher Education Should Focus More on Employability

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The national push to get more students to complete college in the United States should be tied to making students employable upon graduation, but institutions of higher learning also must make significant changes in how they matriculate and remediate the growing number of nontraditional students.

Those were some of the key points made by higher education leaders and others on Thursday during a policy summit titled “Educating for Success: The Nexus Between College Completion and American Competitiveness.”

“The one thing we can all agree on is that employability ought to be an outcome of postsecondary education in the United States when public money is in play,” Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said during a panel discussion at the summit, hosted by National Journal and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“If you talk to legislators, students and their parents and you force them to choose between outcomes, they will, of course, say they want individual development for themselves, be able to explore and broaden horizons to get general education,” Carnevale said. “But if you push them, they’ll say a job or a career is what they’re really after.

“This is what we’re headed for, and it’s fine with me. It seems to me that in an environment where public money is going to be scarce … that the public money ought to be disciplined by a set of outcome standards led by employability.”

Thursday’s policy summit, held in the Columbus Club at Union Station, also served as a platform for the release of “Time is the Enemy,” a new groundbreaking report by Complete College America, a D.C.-based national organization that is working with more than half of the nation’s states to take a more deliberate approach toward increasing their college graduation rates.

The report deals with a variety of issues that beset efforts to boost graduation rates, from “excess credits” to the overall ineffectiveness of traditional remediation programs.

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, said the report demonstrates that postsecondary institutions are overwhelmingly serving non-traditional students who are graduating at low rates.

“Our picture of who the typical college student is, is just completely wrong,” Jones said, explaining that less than a quarter of all college students attend full-time at four-year residential colleges.

The majority of students, Jones said, are students who attend part-time, work or commute to campus, and first-generation college students.

“Our picture of what college is needs to be radically changed,” Jones said. “For that very reason, we’re not being successful.”

The “Time is the Enemy” report shows that, while only 60.6 percent of full-time bachelor’s degree students earn a degree within eight years, for part-time students, the rate is only 24.3 percent.

Similar disparities between full-time and part-time students exist in one-year certificate and associate’s degree programs, the report shows. For instance, while 18.8 percent of full-time students complete associate’s degree programs within four years, the rate is only 7.8 percent for part-time students, the report shows. The figures are 27.8 and 12.2 percent, respectively, for full-time and part-time students in one-year certificate programs.

“Students who are going part-time do not graduate,” Jones said.

Jones said remedial education has been shown as “wholly ineffective”—with remedial students graduating at what the report shows are much lower rates than other students—yet it continues to swallow up vast amounts of public dollars.

The report touts the efforts of several states that help students balance priorities and that are reinventing their remedial education programs.

Panelist Cheryl Hyman, Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, agreed that remedial education needs to be transformed.

“Just repeating high school is not working,” Hyman said. She said the system she oversees is trying new approaches, such as accelerated learning, putting students in college-level courses and providing them with supplemental support, and “contextualized developmental education” where the remediation takes place within credit-bearing courses.

James Shelton III, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, said preparation is the biggest factor in college completion.

“No one has ever calculated what the savings would be if the system worked right the first time,” Shelton said, referring to the K-12 system and how adept it is—or isn’t—at “handing students off to college.”

Shelton also touted the education department’s i3 program—Investing In Innovation—which, among other things, calls for proposals that improve college access and success. Shelton and the department on Thursday announced 23 finalists that must now secure matching private funds in order to receive their grants, which total $150 million.

Shelton said it’s beneficial for high school counselors to have access to and share with students information about an individual college’s graduation rates, such as those highlighted in a 2006 report called “Double the Numbers for College Success.”

“Think about that,” Shelton said of the report, which showed graduation rates that ranged from 11 percent at the University of the District of Columbia to 52 percent and 63 percent at Temple University and Howard University, respectively. “You’re advising students on where to go to college, and you have no idea on whether they have an 11 percent chance of graduating or a 52 percent chance of graduating.”

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