Nation’s Governors Tackle College Completion Rates - Higher Education
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Nation’s Governors Tackle College Completion Rates

by Joyce Jones

WASHINGTON – Following President Barack Obama’s lead, the National Governors Association (NGA) has launched an initiative to increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded and to improve productivity at higher education institutions. Public institutions enroll approximately four out of every five students.

“The nation has fallen from first to 12th in the world in the number of students who complete degrees. Now, we’re faced with a generation of students that is projected to have lower educational attainment than their parents,” West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, head of the association, said in announcing the initiative “Complete to Compete.”

Initially, participating states will identify a common set of metrics that include outcomes such as degrees and certificates awarded, graduation rates, transfer rates and time and credits to degree. These metrics will allow student tracking from semester to semester and year to year to help identify specific challenges and opportunities for improvement. The hope is that they also will signal when institutions need to provide increased access to interventions and support services to improve the likelihood of completion.

The plan also calls for metrics that determine how they’re progressing, such as remedial education enrollment, credit accumulation, retention rates and first-year success. In addition, it recommends that the progress and completion metrics be disaggregated by gender, race/ethnicity, income, age, enrollment status, degree type and discipline. The goal here is to significantly close the gaps in success rates for low-income and minority students as well as nontraditional subgroups like adults and part-time students.

Leaders hope that gathering such information will help them develop a national completion rate strategy and make future funding decisions. This is particularly important as the nation slowly recovers from an economic downturn that has left most state budgets crippled and in deep deficit.

“The metrics will help inform funding decisions, but, if not a lot of funding is available, no matter what the data says there’s a question of what types of programs and services can be funded,” says Dr. Bryan Cook, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis. “The value of having these kinds of metrics is that it will help them get a bit more bang for their buck. They can use it to target areas they think will make the most change in completion rates as opposed to broad data that doesn’t tell you where the money is best spent. This will help them better spend diminishing resources.”

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, who heads Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, believes the nation’s governors are in a bind because they’re expected to produce higher graduation rates from systems on which they can’t afford to spend any more money. He says higher education is one of the easiest areas to cut and still remain politically safe.

But Carnevale is concerned that this exercise will lead to “lots of stratification by race, class and ethnicity.” To reach their goals, state leaders will have to “slim down” the system by cutting out frills and making programs “quicker, cheaper and much more focused on labor markets—that is, matching curriculums to jobs.”

In many ways, it’s a Catch-22 situation. Graduating more students and ensuring that they can successfully join a work force that increasingly calls for better-educated employees is a good thing, particularly for low-income and minority students.

“The system that will provide education to [fill] middle-class careers will be one that emphasizes certificates, two-year associate degrees and four-year degrees in very applied fields, which leads to stratification,” Carnevale says.

Meanwhile, upper-income White students and a small minority of advantaged or affluent minority students will receive a more well-rounded, enlightening liberal arts education at the more selective schools and then go on to graduate school and careers where they will make a good deal more money, he says.

“This has been slowly happening for a long time,” he says, “but it’s accelerating now with a vengeance because budgets force it.”

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, agrees that states should take heed of Carnevale’s warning, but he also believes the NGA initiative is needed.

“If we don’t get kids to some education beyond high school, they’re not going to have jobs that support a middle-class life and the country’s not going to be internationally competitive,” he says. Still, Callan adds, there will be some trial and error as states seek to develop policies. “The danger is going to be the silver-bullet solutions where people think, if you do this one thing, it will work, such as more accountability or funding.” Since the latter is unlikely, Callan, like Cook, believes states will spend their limited resources more wisely.

“It’s always going to be a matter of how we spend the money we have as much as how much we have. Every institution in society is going to be tightening belts and forced to perform better,” Callan says. 

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