First, Figure Out Why We Are Failing

Is higher education improving or going down hill?

By Judith Ramaley (Winona)

In his inaugural speech, President Obama declared that “our schools fail too many.” Few would disagree with the fundamental premise that we must promote greater educational attainment for everyone if we are to meet the challenges of today’s world. The United States once led the world in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, but in recent years, 15 other nations have surpassed us in that measure. Some nations are already pulling ahead of us in the proportion of their total adult population that holds college degrees.

Concerns about our nation’s declining position in the global education race and what that may mean for our competitiveness have led us to a focus on college completion. Policy makers are setting goals for degree attainment, designing ways to measure the progress of students and how quickly they earn a degree, and asking colleges and universities to shorten degree programs and remove barriers to academic success. Few of these efforts include a discussion about what it means to be educated and why we are failing to serve all of our students well.

A focus on “completion” will not be enough to help us increase our competitiveness, prepare our students to be responsible citizens, and protect and enhance our nation’s role in the world. We must first figure out why we are failing so many students, and then we must do something about it. Only then will the completion rates go up. We must also talk about what an accumulation of credit hours can actually tell us about our graduates. By focusing on degree completion without considering the quality and outcomes of the experiences that accompany that achievement, we are shortchanging ourselves and our students.

Every thoughtful observer has his or her own favorite explanation about why we are failing so many of our students, as well as a preferred solution. It is tempting to pick a solution that can generate solid data—for example, credit hours or degrees conferred—to be used for accountability. However, our problem is bigger than that.

To meet contemporary needs, our colleges must not only graduate a higher proportion of students but also educate them in new ways. We need to pay attention to the skills they will need to thrive in the 21st century, as individuals and as contributors to a democratic society. Public policy should provide additional financing that promotes both completion and a quality educational experience that prepares graduates for the demands of a new age.

Many institutions that serve a broad range of students have reason to worry that data on degree completion will become dashboard indicators of institutional quality. It is too easy for institutions that serve exceptionally well-prepared students to look good and for institutions that serve a significant proportion of nontraditional and underrepresented students to look bad.

Many colleges welcome students who are simply not fully prepared for college-level work. I have been inspired and encouraged by what I have learned from institutions like Salt Lake Community College and LaGuardia Community College about how to support students like these.

Salt Lake Community College has produced a road map outlining what it must do to prepare its students for academic and career success. The early results are encouraging. LaGuardia Community College has developed a First Year Institute that is yielding exciting results for both new students and continuing students who are having academic difficulties. Both institutions serve a significant proportion of nontraditional and underrepresented students. These colleges have a compelling story to tell about what it takes to help students who are not fully prepared for college-level work. We can all learn from these stories, regardless of whom we serve. We should be judged on what we know about our students and what we are doing to help them be successful. Improved degree completion will follow.

A heavy focus on degree completion leaves out the realities of life in today’s academy and can, unfortunately, lead to unintended consequences. Institutions that enroll extremely well-prepared students from economically secure and well-educated families will naturally have high completion rates. Institutions that serve the underserved can improve their standing in two ways—by raising their admissions standards to weed out students who are unlikely to succeed without special support or by adopting new and promising practices that foster academic and career success for all their students, regardless of how prepared they are when they enter college.

Both approaches will increase completion rates for a particular institution. Only the latter strategy will deal with the serious gaps in academic and career success that are causing us to fall behind other nations in the educational attainment of our citizenry.

Judith Ramaley is president of Winona State University.

This essay was originally published as an answer to the question, “Do College Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 2012.

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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