“Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma,” President Obama said in a February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. “And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education, and half of the students who begin college never finish.” With those remarks, the president put the issue of college completion front and center on the national stage. Calling the situation a “prescription for economic decline,” Obama went on to urge all Americans to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. “By 2020,” he said of the goal, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
The “once again” comment refers to the United States’ former stature as the most college-educated nation in the world. Policymakers and educators bemoan the United States’ gradual slide from that once-lofty rank , a decline that has been documented in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report “Education at a Glance,” which tracks college completion rates in industrialized countries worldwide. To meet Obama’s goal, the United States will have to raise the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 64 with a college degree from its measurement of 41.2 percent in 2010 to nearly 60 percent. Considerable debate has arisen over whether America’s gradual decline as first in the world in educational attainment is the result of actual slippage or rather is more a matter of other nations making more progress more quickly. Either way, it is clear that American policymakers and college completion advocates see the drop as a call to action.
And President Obama is not alone in setting a target date for that action to yield tangible results. For example, Lumina Foundation, an influential higher education philanthropy, aims to increase the percentage of Americans who hold high-quality postsecondary degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. The College Board is also aiming for 2025, specifically to have 55 percent of the nation’s adults ages 25 to 34 hold at an associate’s degree or higher. While the dates and goals vary, together they underscore how central the college completion agenda has become to higher education policy and practice. This section of Story Starters examines how this movement has developed and what it has meant for higher education.
The college completion agenda has been advanced by a number of philanthropic organizations and policymakers. While President Obama gave this agenda a prominent push, many of the issues being championed by today’s college completion advocates were raised in a 2006 report, titled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.” The report is commonly referred to as the Spellings report for Margaret Spellings, who was U.S. secretary of education during President George W. Bush’s second term.
Like many of the current completion initiatives, the Spellings report called for better data on college graduation rates as the nation’s demographics—and the backgrounds and lives of those seeking college degrees—were starting to shifting substantially. The report was critical of institutions of higher learning for not doing more to move students from enrollment to degree. “Among high school graduates who do make it on to postsecondary education, a troubling number waste time—and taxpayer dollars—mastering English and math skills that they should have learned in high school,” the report states. “And some never complete their degrees at all, at least in part because most colleges and universities don’t accept responsibility for making sure that those they admit actually succeed.”
The Spelling Report’s conclusions regarding college graduation rates gained more urgency during and after the 2008 global financial crisis. As unemployment rates swelled and were slow to recede, prominent research from institutions including the Georgetown University Center on the Workforce and Education concluded that people with college degrees or higher were less likely to be unemployed and earned substantially more over their careers. It is important to note, however, that some advocates for improving college completion rates emphasize the importance of a college education for its own inherent value in fostering self-efficacy and citizenship.
One central question in the efforts to improve college graduation rates is which changes would produce the most effective results? Is the completion problem a result of student’s lack of time, money, or a combination of both? Would it be most effective to revamp postsecondary institutional practices to take into account the reality of today’s students so that the time to degree can be shortened before “life gets in the way,” as has become a common refrain for college completion advocates? For instance, the 2011 report “Time Is the Enemy” from Complete College America—a nonprofit organization that specifically focuses on improving graduation rates—argues that, among other things, college curricula should take into account the “busy lives” of contemporary students, who collectively no longer mirror the “traditional” college student who enrolls in a four-year institution straight out of high school.
Other organizations, such as the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, emphasize the impact of a student’s socioeconomic background. For instance, in a one brief, the institute argues that income-based inequality in educational attainment is “a central obstacle to achieving the 2020 goal and that decreasing income-based attainment gaps must become a central focus of federal education policy.”
Improving the Data
Others who have examined college graduation rates have raised questions about the federal college completion data system, which is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS. While IPEDS calculates college graduation rates based on full-time, first-time students, a growing chorus of higher education officials say IPEDS fails to capture the realities of today’s college students, who take longer to complete their degrees or who transfer from one institution to another. IPEDS also has been criticized for not tracking the progress of students who transfer colleges, though this practice might be revised to account for their graduation at their transfer institution. (In April 2012, the Education Department released an action plan to enact these revised graduation rate data collection policies, but did not set a date for revised measurements to be in place.) Using the full-time, first-time criteria, only about half of all students who enroll in college earn a four-year degree within six years.
In the philanthropic world, the two biggest players in college completion are the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which have devoted millions of dollars to research a wide range of issues in higher education, from lack of college readiness (“college knowledge”) among low-income students to postsecondary remedial education, which is often considered to be one of the barriers to students’ progress toward graduation. (Both the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation provide grant support for EWA’s work pertaining to higher education.)
In December 2008, the Gates Foundation announced a $69 million initiative of multiyear grants to “double the number of low-income students who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with genuine value in the workplace by age 26.” Many of those grants were given for three-, four- and five-year projects, meaning that over the next few years, the foundation and journalists will be asking questions about what was learned and achieved through those grants, as well as several other multiyear grants projects the Gates Foundation has since launched to improve higher education attainment in the United States.
The same goes for the grants awarded by the Lumina Foundation, whose work in improving higher education attainment is tied to a strategic plan that it announced in 2009 known as Goal 2025. Lumina’s “big goal,” which it describes as “audacious,” is to “increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials from the longstanding rate of 39 percent to 60 percent by the year 2025.” (The foundation defines high-quality credentials as degrees and certificates that have well-defined and transparent learning outcomes that provide clear pathways to further education and employment and is looking to raise the percentage of degree holders from 24- to 64-years-old.)
Other major players in the college completion agenda include the College Board, which has an initiative formally known as the College Completion Agenda. The initiative is essentially a two-pronged approach that deals with state policy and national metrics. Specifically, the College Board releases an annual College Completion Agenda progress report that keeps tabs on where the nation is in proximity to its various college completion goals. Additionally, the College Board has produced a state policy guide that features “best-practice policy examples, all aligned around 10 key recommendations.” — Jamaal Abdul-Alim, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Schools must disclose the graduation rates of students who received a Pell grant, students who received a subsidized Stafford loan but not a Pell grant and students who received neither under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed in 2009. These three separate graduation rates can reveal a college's success in serving students from different economic backgrounds. (U.S. News & World Report)Read More »
Between 2009 and 2011, the nation’s Black undergraduate population jumped by 8.5 percent and Latino undergraduates rose 22 percent, while White college enrollment increased only 2.7 percent. During that same time period, graduation rates also increased. Six-year graduation rates for Latino, White and Black students increased by 4.7 percent, 2.1 percent and 2 percent, respectively. (Diverse: Issues In Higher Education)Read More »
Past valedictorians of low-performing District high schools say their own transitions to college were eye-opening and at times ego-shattering, filled with revelations that — despite taking their public schools’ most difficult classes and acing them — they were not equipped to excel at the nation’s top colleges. (The Washington Post)Read More »
The number of Americans graduating from college has surged in recent years, sending the share with a college degree to a new high, federal data shows. (The New York Times)Read More »
The GED no longer has a lock on the market for tests that serve as the equivalent of a high school degree. Three states have switched to new competitors from Educational Testing Service (ETS) and McGraw-Hill -- and many more are mulling a change. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
Looking at college explicitly in terms of its "return on investment," measured in starting salaries and potential earnings, is something new—a confluence of anxieties about the rising cost of college, mounting debt among students, a flaccid economy, and the ubiquitous vocabulary of the market. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
California’s community college system on April 9 unveiled Web-based “scorecards” on student performance at its 112 colleges. The new data tool is user-friendly and often sobering, with graduation, retention and transfer rates for each of the colleges and for the overall system, which enrolls 2.4 million students. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
If it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university. (NY Times)Read More »
But few traditional schools in Indiana have plans to adopt competency-based education in a way that allows students to progress toward degrees on their own time lines. Such schools as Indiana University, Indiana State University and even for-profit educators like Harrison College say they plan to stick closely to their models that require specific amounts of time in class to graduate. (Associated Press)Read More »
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points. (The New York Times)Read More »
An age-old doorway into skilled trades and a middle-class life, the apprenticeship is making a comeback, rebounding after all but disappearing in recent decades in the face of a decline in union membership and dwindling demand for skilled labor. And as the economy changes, today's apprenticeships combine the chance for workers not only to master skills while earning a paycheck but to get a college degree at the same time. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
Of the $956 billion in student-loan debt outstanding as of September, 11 percent was delinquent — up from less than 9 percent in the second quarter, and higher than the 10.5 percent of credit-card debt, which was delinquent in the third quarter. By comparison, delinquency rates on mortgages, home-equity lines of credit and auto loans stood at 5.9 percent, 4.9 percent, and 4.3 percent respectively as of September. (CNBC)Read More »
A joint examination by ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education has found that Plus loans can sometimes hurt the very families they are intended to help: The loans are both remarkably easy to get and nearly impossible to get out from under for families who've overreached. When a parent applies for a Plus loan, the government checks credit history, but it doesn't assess whether the borrower has the ability to repay the loan. It doesn't check income. It doesn't check employment status. It doesn't check how much other debt — like a mortgage, or other student-loan debt — the borrower is already on the hook for. (ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
Lawyers drained Linda Brice’s bank account and seized a quarter of her take-home pay, or more than $900 a month. Brice, a first-grade teacher and Coast Guard veteran, begged for mercy, saying she couldn’t afford food, gas or utilities.
Brice’s transgression: she defaulted on $3,100 she had borrowed more than 30 years ago to pay for college. The chief federal judge in Los Angeles took her side, ruling that Brice should pay only $25 a month. The law firm of Goldsmith & Hull -- representing the federal government -- then withdrew $2,496 from her bank account. (Bloomberg News)Read More »
In some ways, community colleges have faced the most scrutiny by advocates of the college completion agenda. This article reports on a panel discussion of the impact these efforts have had on two-year colleges. “[If] the focus on completion gets too singular, two-year colleges run the risk of neglecting student access and even the quality of learning on their campuses,” the story notes. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
The consequences of leaving college before graduation are not just educational. Dropping out also can have a significant financial impact: “College dropouts are also among the most likely to default on their loans, falling behind at a rate four times that of graduates.” (Washington Post)Read More »
With the growing demand for improving college completion rates has come a need for more thorough information about just how well or poorly colleges and their students are performing on a variety of measures. In a growing number of states, that data is being used to improve the number of students who finish their degrees. (The Chronicle of Higher Education) examines the trend.Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. College students spend a lot of time listening to lectures. But research shows there are better ways to learn. And experts say students need to learn better because the 21st century economy demands more well-educated workers. (American RadioWorks)
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. With skyrocketing numbers of applicants and declining percentages of students accepted, how are admissions offices handling the multiple pressures they face? Are schools bringing in more and more accomplished students, or just the same kind of enrollment class compared to students from a decade ago? (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
The national college completion goals laid out by President Obama and various organizations are literally monumental, aiming to move millions of Americans to college degrees. This article examines efforts to break that large, national goal down into smaller regional and metropolitan goals. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
Many advocates for increasing the number of Americans with college credentials assert that one efficient way to raise that number would be to convince adults who have dropped out of college to return and finish their degrees. This article examines the pros and cons of that approach. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
This article examines the ideas experts — including some college presidents — shared in a discussion entitled “Competing in a Global Economy: How to Boost College Completion Rates," sponsored by the Gates Foundation. “American colleges often focus too much on enrolling students and not enough on making sure they graduate, a number of panelists said.” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. For college athletes, how much help is too much if they have learning disabilities? This story features a fired disabilities coach who university officials say blurred the line between aiding student-athletes with learning disabilities and academic fraud. Other members of the university's athletic academic support unit in some cases supplied answers to tests, and in other cases typed papers, for 61 athletes in football and other sports. (ESPN)Read More »
This article covers the Gates Foundation’s original announcement of its college completion initiative. A subscription is required to view the full article. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
An annual report on progress toward the goal that 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. (Lumina Foundation)Read More »
"The nation is, at long last, engaged in a serious discussion of what
it might take to make sure that our students leave high schoolRead More »
college and career ready. But what exactly, does that mean? Almost
three years ago, we decided to find out, by looking at the levels of
mathematics and English language literacy high school graduates
need to succeed in their first year in our community colleges." (NCEE)
This is the third major report the Lumina Foundation has released to assess the nation’s progress toward Lumina’s goal “to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.” The report found that only 38.3 percent of working-age Americans held a two- or four-year college degree in 2010, concluding that “if we continue on our current rate of production, only 79.8 million working-age Americans (46.5% of those aged 25-64) will hold degrees by 2025…This will leave us more than 23 million degrees short of the national 60 percent goal.”Read More »
This comprehensive study challenged the conventional image that most college students enter postsecondary education directly from high school and proceed directly to a bachelor’s degree in six years or less. It notes instead that “Nontraditional students are the new majority” and that “Part-time students rarely graduate,” among its other groundbreaking findings. (Complete College America)Read More »
Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal — The Threat of Income-Based Inequality in EducationMay 2011
In this report, the Pell Institute says that “The nation’s failure to keep pace with other countries in educational attainment among 25- to 34- year-old adults can largely be traced to our inability to adequately educate individuals from families in the bottom half of the income distribution.”Read More »
Tracking the national progress toward its goal for college completion, the College Board offers 10 recommendations for improving educational attainment. At the postsecondary level, the goals include reforming college admissions, simplifying and improving financial aid, and offering better academic counseling to college students.Read More »
This study, commonly known as the Spellings Report—in reference to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings who commissioned it—is perhaps one of the earliest landmarks in the current college completion agenda. “We may still have more than our share of the world’s best universities,” the report asserts. “But a lot of other countries have followed our lead, and they are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are. Worse, they are passing us by at a time when education is more important to our collective prosperity than ever.” (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Look at the graduation rates for the past five years for the community colleges and four-year colleges that you cover. Have these increased or decreased, and—if so—why? Have they started any new initiatives to improve graduation rates?
- One crucial question to the college completion agenda is the balance between access and graduation rates. If, as many people argue, the most efficient way for colleges to improve their graduation rates is to enroll high school graduates with higher grade point averages and college admissions test scores, then students with less competitive credentials could be shut out of higher education. How have the colleges you cover managed this balance over the years and are the scales starting to tip in one direction?
- Another key question regarding graduation rates is the socioeconomic backgrounds of a college’s students. It is commonly thought that the less affordable a college becomes, the less likely its students are to graduate. What the financial aid policies and practices of the colleges you cover and the average student debt loads for their graduates? How have cuts in state funding and the general economic slump affected the net prices students have to pay to earn a degree?
- What percentage of first-year students at the colleges and universities you cover have to take remedial or “developmental” education courses? What percentages of those groups go on to earn degrees? Many advocates for improving college graduation rates assert that these courses present a major obstacle, leading students to accrue debt for courses that don’t count toward a degree. Are there any initiatives to change how these courses are handled at these colleges?
- Are the demographics of your community changing and, subsequently, are the populations of the colleges in your region in flux? If colleges and universities are to meet the 2020 and 2025 graduation goals proposed by the president and organizations, these institutions likely will have to educate many more Latino, black, and low-income students, the precise groups they historically have struggled with.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in December 2008 announced a $69 million multiyear grants initiative to “double the number of low-income students who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with genuine value in the workplace by age 26.” While the foundation has done extensive, non-education-related work in developing nations, “In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.” The Gates Foundation has sponsored the Education Writers Association’s work regarding the coverage of higher education.
The College Board runs the College Completion Agenda project. The Board releases an annual completion agenda progress report that examines the national progress on various college completion goals. The College Board’s own college completion goal is to increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate’s degree or higher to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Complete College America, launched in 2009, is a national nonprofit set up to “work with states to significantly increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates or college degrees and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.” The shifting demographics of American society are central to CCA’s efforts as they note “we must move with urgency to reinvent American higher education to meet the needs of the new majority of students on our campuses, delicately balancing the jobs they need with the education they desire.”
The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning is a nonprofit organization that works toward “linking learning and work.” CAEL’s work regarding MOOCs and online education includes outreach and support to adult learners, colleges and universities, and employers in addition to advocacy work to help people “earn college credit for what they already know.”
The Institute for College Access and Success “works to make higher education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds.” TICAS’s research and advocacy efforts largely focus on the roles that socioeconomic income and student play in affecting whether students earn postsecondary degrees.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy “is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to promoting access to and success in higher education for all students.” IHEP approaches postsecondary improvement with five key goals in mind: access and success; accountability; diversity; finance; and global impact.
The Lumina Foundation for Education is a philanthropic organization dedicated to improving college graduation rates in the United States. The foundation—headquartered in Indianapolis—was established in 2000, and in 2009, Lumina announced its Goal 2025 initiative, which seeks to “increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials from the longstanding rate of 39 percent to 60 percent by the year 2025.” The Lumina Foundation has sponsored the Education Writers Association’s work regarding the coverage of higher education.
The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education researches and emphasizes the role that socioeconomic background plays with regard to a student’s ability to earn a college degree. The Pell Institute also studies issues affecting the completion rates of first-generation students and students with disabilities.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.