Nationwide Initiative to Boost Graduation Numbers - Higher Education
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Nationwide Initiative to Boost Graduation Numbers

by Lois Elfman

With the goal of significantly increasing the number of graduates by the year 2025, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) has launched an unprecedented nationwide collaborative effort.

“When you look at degree completion among public [institutions] in this country, you’ve got some great stories,” said Peter McPherson, president of APLU. “Within states there are some really good stories of state universities. But there is not a national story; there’s not a national benchmark.

“If you have a hundred universities with millions of students, we’ll be able to present not an absolute, complete national story, but a substantial national story. We need to make that case with the commitment to increase degrees and to close achievement gaps. We want to get data to show where we are.”

Peter McPherson

APLU announced last week a comprehensive national effort involving 100 public research universities. Clusters of eight to 10 institutions each will work collaboratively with the goal of producing hundreds of thousands more graduates by the year 2025. The clusters will develop, refine and scale innovative practices designed to both increase graduation rates and close achievement gaps.

Key data from each cluster will be shared within the clusters and then proven practices will be shared throughout higher education.

Graduation rates and achievement gaps long have been issues addressed by APLU, and interventions and ideas have been presented. McPherson said it has become clear that interest in degree completion has significantly increased in recent years. There is a broad commitment across institutions, and greater openness to collaboration in developing new ideas.

APLU’s recently launched Center for Public University Transformation (CPUT) will serve as the support system for the transformation clusters. The processes and procedures are presently being put in place. A national advisory council of leaders in higher education is being assembled for CPUT.

McPherson said the clusters will be established through conversations among universities together with APLU, noting it wouldn’t be effective for APLU to assign the clusters. Some clusters may form around geographic areas,  others based on types of institutions.

Each cluster will determine its focus, targets and innovative practices. To begin, the universities will focus on the overarching goals of increasing the number of degrees and closing achievement gaps.

“Within the drive to achieve those big goals, we expect people will use a lot of different approaches,” said McPherson. “There are a number of initiatives on which the data is clear that people broadly will use, but there are other efforts that will come up from the individual schools.”

These could come from closer analysis of existing data, which can produce new solutions and interventions. These solutions will be shared and tested among the clusters and then disseminated among all the participating universities.

“People find interesting, different ways to get things done,” McPherson said. “We see quite a lot of interest as we begin to roll out our conversations with universities.”

While APLU’s membership is comprised of research institutions, the hope is that the long-term impact of this effort will involve data that can be utilized by a broad range of two-year and four-year institutions.

“We would expect that in many cases as people drive the number of degrees and the low-income, first-generation, minority students’ gap closes in numbers, often part of that will be working with community colleges,” said McPherson. “The community college effort is already important for many schools, and we expect this will enhance it.”

The effort does not have a specified end date, and no benchmark goals yet. McPherson said the project will evolve as it progresses. And while results ultimately will need to be quantified, numbers won’t be set until the transformation clusters are in place and there is extensive conversation with participating universities.

“With the university community, you really need to sit down and work it through,” said McPherson. He noted that imposing a numeric goal on the universities isn’t as effective as engaging them in meaningful discussion to arrive at it.

“The expectation in colleges and universities these days should be access, completion and employment. That’s the pathway students should reasonably expect and we as a society should work at,” he said.

Center director Julia Michaels said her conversations with representatives of the various universities indicates that they know what areas they want to address, who their peer institutions are and how they want to collaborate.

Essentially, this is a planning year.

“This is a process of discovery and of match-making, in a sense,” said Michaels. “We want to make sure we get it right and we have clusters formed that are going to maximize benefit for the universities.”

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