February 3, 2012

Stan Jones is president of Complete College America, a Washington-based nonprofit.

President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable is noble in intent but misses the mark in design. If the president and Congress were to focus on the real culprit of high college costs — poor college completion numbers — they could find rare common ground and make substantial headway on a problem that threatens to sink U.S. economic competitiveness.

The president was right when he noted that college is rapidly becoming unaffordable for many. Yet his threats to reduce federal funding to schools that don’t cut tuition may open the door for opponents to push back against reforms by invoking accusations of “price controls” and another “big-government takeover.”

College presidents point to what seem like reasonable arguments for rising tuition: shrinking state budgets, for one, and the increasing costs of energy, pensions and health care. But if these circular arguments simply go round and round, an important opportunity will be missed.

Data show that time, not tuition, is the enemy of college completion. Today’s college students are dramatically different from the archetype of the U.S. undergraduate: A 2009 Public Agenda study drawing on Education Department data found that less than a quarter of U.S. college students attend full time at residential schools. Most students now commute to campus, balancing jobs, school and often family.

Higher education has done little to adjust to the changing needs of this new majority, with the result that students are spending longer than ever in college. The longer it takes to graduate, the more life gets in the way and the less likely that one will ever graduate. More time on campus also means that more is spent on college, adding high costs as another driver of dropouts. In this instance, time is money.

All this adds up to a startling fact: Less than half of U.S. college students graduate, the National Center for Education Statistics reported last year.

There is a way the federal government can take on this issue. Because cutting time cuts costs, the president can achieve the savings he seeks for students and taxpayers by linking federal investments to college results and targeting the greatest obstacles to graduation: failed remediation programs that waste time and money; broken policies that make it hard for students to transfer credits; students roaming the curriculum excessively instead of following structured, career-focused programs; creeping credit requirements; and schedules designed more to please faculty than to help working students.

Colleges should, of course, become more efficient. But raising professors’ health-care premiums or adjusting thermostats won’t boost completion rates. And appeals to reduce tuition through higher appropriations are unlikely to fly in cash-strapped state capitols. The result is that America will fall further behind: The United States once led the world in higher-education attainment; now we trail at least a dozen countries, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data published last year.

Rather than engage in simplistic fights about runaway tuition, let’s pinpoint the best methods to reduce time on campus. College completion can be common ground on which the president and Congress focus on costs that are directly related to student learning and success. They should replace blame shifting with irrefutable facts and seek data-driven solutions that can be achieved now to help students afford their dreams while increasing graduation rates.

Washington should also keep this in mind: States are not waiting to boost college completion. Since March 2010, 30 governors have publicly committed their states to setting graduation goals; designing comprehensive completion plans; and moving significant policies to speed student success, including paying colleges for the students they graduate, not simply for those they enroll.

Working across party lines, governors, legislators and education leaders are building a movement. Their success will strengthen state economies while taxpayers get a greater return on their investments and millions more students make it to graduation day. Washington should follow this example.