Higher education leaders made public a letter Wednesday night that is notable for stressing a point that should be obvious: “College completion must be our priority.”
Which raises the question: Since when has completion not been a priority?
The letter is from a group called the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, comprised of representatives of six associations of college presidents. E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, chaired the commission. (As I was writing this, the letter had not yet been posted on a public Web site, but I believe it will be found here.)
Earlier Wednesday, Gee said in a telephone interview that colleges sometimes focus too much on getting students in the door and taking their tuition money, and not enough on making sure they get a degree for their troubles. Too many students, as a result, fail to earn a credential that could help them get ahead in work and life.
“It breaks our heart to think about the loss of American potential by the leakage in the system,” Gee said.
Stopping the leakage is a point that President Obama and his aides have been making since 2009.
One problem is that policymakers have trouble defining how well or poorly colleges are doing. Federal data on college graduation rates only account for those who are first-time, full-time enrolled students. Many, though, are transfer students or part-timers or in some other way “non-traditional.”
The commission’s letter notes that four-year public universities have a 54 percent graduation rate using the federal methodology. That rises to 63 percent if the calculations include students who transfer and graduate from another institution. Even more students who fail to graduate on time are still enrolled, in one way or another, and should not be counted as dropouts, the letter said.
Regardless, the letter said, completion rates are still too low. The letter highlighted several techniques that colleges could use to boost the share of students who earn diplomas.
Among them: change the culture on campus to underscore the importance of staying on track for a degree; assign “ownership” of the issue to a high-ranking official; improve the academic experience; facilitate transfer credit for previous learning; help college teachers improve; and deliver courses more efficiently.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, one of the members of the commission, said various types of colleges will try various approaches. “One size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “In this letter we’ve identified a number of strategies that are scaleable.”
Broad added that if schools invest as much time and effort on degree attainment as they do on access and recruiting, “we could make a lot of progress.”