A thoughtful essay on college completion

At least at the community college level.  This is by Sanford C. Shugart, writing in Inside Higher Education.  You may remember Sandy from the ACHE Annual Meeting in Los Angeles whose planning was chaired by John Yates and (ahem) me. To refresh your memory, he sang.

Moving the needle on college completion, thoughtfully (essay) | Inside Higher Ed

Not long ago, a good friend and outstanding college president moved from El Paso Community College, where for a decade he had led a complete transformation of the college and the results its students achieved, to Austin Community College, a college ready for much the same kind of transformational leadership. 
Within the first few weeks in Austin, on his drive to work, he encountered a large billboard that said “Austin Community College, Graduation Rate 4% -­‐   Is this a good use of taxpayers dollars?” 
Welcome to Austin. The billboard was sponsored by a business leader with a variety of concerns over higher education in the Lone Star state. My friend contacted the newspaper and asked for an opportunity to respond. At the press conference that resulted, he strode to the microphone and announced that the graduation rate quoted on the billboard was categorically incorrect – the actual graduation rate was 3.9 percent. The group assembled chuckled nervously. My friend went on to provide some context for these results and address the ways the college was moving to improve them.   
What lessons can we draw from this story for the future of our work, especially as it touches on the remarkable attention now being focused on how our students complete what they have started: Who earns a degree or other credential?  How long it takes them to do so? How much debt they graduate with? And how their education’s value in the marketplace justifies both this debt and the state’s investment in their education? 
The “completion agenda” represents just one set of questions that have defined national and state policy discussions in higher education recently. Others include: How competitive is our workforce? How do we rank in percentage of adults with a college education?  What about the STEM fields? And why don’t governors think more highly of psychology majors? 
There are questions around financing: In the public sector, a long-­term trend to defunding colleges and universities was greatly accelerated by the recession, resulting in substantial unfunded growth and cost shifting to students, even as some boards and governors challenge the moves to increase tuition to offset some of the losses. (At Valencia, we have taken 25 percent of the cost per FTE in constant dollars out of the college in just five years. And the percentages of funds coming from students and the state have virtually reversed, with nearly two-thirds coming from tuition, only a third from the state of Florida. Yet our governor stood in front of us recently and said with all sincerity that he didn’t understand why our colleges wanted to raise tuition on the poor working families of Florida.) 
And these long-­term funding challenges are exacerbated by the fact that we are competing for state revenue with voracious entitlement programs consuming an extraordinary share of total state revenues that won’t recover to 2007 levels until sometime in 2015 or 2016, if then.
At the national level we have deep partisan differences over financial aid policy and deep concern over mounting student debt, yet no consensus on meaningful solutions that could protect students from the more unsavory edges of the industry and allow for rational pricing and positioning by colleges and universities in 50 states. 
But with all of this to worry and whine about, few of us have been welcomed to work as negatively as my good friend Richard. Note that the big Texas “howdy” from the business leadership of the state was about completions – or rather the lack of them. 
This concern with completion has real legs.  As the feds measure our work (something that has never been done well, for which we share in the blame), even the most selective colleges complete barely three in four of their students; state universities closer to one in two, and community colleges, one in three. Not much to brag about.


Kimberly Crews said…
Great Post,

I too work at a University with a low graduation rate. One challenge is the way that graduation rates are calculated--entering freshmen who graduate within a specific time frame. Another challenge is that most of our graduates are transfer students who do not get considered in the traditional graduation rates.

New measures are need to accurately reflect the experiences of our college graduates.

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