Why College? The Many Implications of Completion

By Jim Geringer and Stan Jones    //    Volume 24,  Number 1   //    January/February 2016

College access and attainment of a postsecondary credential are the remedy to what ails the American economy– greater completion levels will lead to both economic and social success. In the last five years, at least a dozen leading policy and education organizations have initiated efforts to boost college completion. This is hardly the first time these concerns have been articulated. To quote “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, “This is not the first or only commission on education, and some of our findings are surely not new, but old business that now at last must be done. For no one can doubt that the United States is under challenge from many quarters.” Today’s board members may well have been students 33 years ago, when that report was released. But now they’re in a position to do something about these challenges.

Our old business is still our new business. Let’s “git ’er, done,” as we say out in Wyoming. Who, then, should take up the challenge? Certainly, institution board members and presidents ought to respond. Business leaders, educators, legislators, foundations, parents, and students of all sorts are also players. So where should we begin and what might we do to improve upon past results?

Degrees and Jobs

Let’s start with students: the high-school graduates, later-in-life learners, career changers. Are they motivated toward a college degree? Are they prepared for college work? Some are saying, “Why should I go to college? What I really need is a job!”

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” finds that college graduates outpace those with less education on virtually every measure of job satisfaction, career success, and social involvement. It’s not just about money, it’s about life. Societies with higher educational attainment can expect greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, and less dependence on public assistance. A more educated citizenry has a positive impact— locally, in the states, and nationwide.

A 2015 study from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “Good Jobs Are Back: College Graduates Are First in Line,” reports that jobs that pay $53,000 or more annually and in most cases offer benefits made up nearly half of the new jobs added during the economic recovery; 97 percent of those good jobs went to college graduates. Meanwhile, workers with a high-school diploma or less have lost 39,000 good jobs since 2010.

The Lumina Foundation carries the thought further. Four out of five jobs lost during the recession were those requiring a high-school education or less. Those low-skill jobs are gone for good, replaced by technology or with jobs that require specialized training and skills. While many of those lowskill workers are still out of work, employers say that they can’t find qualified job applicants for the new jobs. By 2020, Lumina says, two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.

A 2014 Georgetown study looked at the wide disparity between earnings and educational levels. Even though, over a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree may be worth $2.8 million more on average for a full-time, full-year worker from ages 25 to 64 compared to one having only completed high school, it’s not just about college. Some people with low or no college attainment may earn more than their more educated counterparts as a result of postsecondary certification. Customer service representatives with an associate’s degree can make $1.4 million over a lifetime, while high school graduates with occupational certification who are supervisors of production workers could make $1.8 million over a lifetime.

Overall, the case for going to college remains strong; it is still a good investment for both the student and for society. Private gain and public benefit. A 2014 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study, “Maximizing Resources for Student Success,” establishes a long-term and continuing reduction in the number of people who have less than a high school diploma. That’s the good news. The bad news is there are a substantial and increasing number of people who have some college credit but no degree. In the United States, approximately 40 percent of adults have completed a postsecondary credential. But almost 20 percent have some college with no degree. Taken together, those percentages represent a potential attainment rate of 60 percent, which would put the U.S. at the top of international rankings.

What Should Concern Board Members?

Be curious about your institution. Board members should be asking questions about the completion rate for their institution, how the rate is calculated, and what the primary factors are for non-completion, especially those that are institutionally related. Financial and family demands are often just symptoms related to problems in how institutions administer their academic programs. Do we have a problem? If so, how bad is it and what are the causes? Don’t stop there. What can we do to improve success? How can we be better informed?

As Stan Jones, a co-author of this piece, commented at a board of directors meeting of Complete College America, “Most board members don’t know what their completion rate is, how it’s measured, what the time to graduation is, and whether remediation is successful.” Why don’t they? How should they use data as an educational tool to enable better decisions? Who should present the data?

What are the numbers? The federal government only requires campuses to report progress and success on first-time, full-time students, typically recent highschool graduates. But four of every 10 public college students are able to attend only part-time, and a majority of all students are not recent high-school graduates. The “non-traditional” student of the past is in the majority today. Likewise, if you start full-time and then transfer to a different institution, you haven’t been counted. Leaders have been making policy decisions about higher education absent critical information regarding a majority of their students. Don’t just blame the feds. Board members should ask for and receive information directly from their institutions.

College costs too much and creates too much student debt. But do we know the rest of the story? We hear almost daily accounts about college debt and everincreasing tuition, yet there are unreported cost drivers that should receive attention. The vast majority of American college students do not graduate on time, but many more could—saving themselves and their families significant time and money. They incur extra costs for college and lose two or more years of income by not graduating on time. The National Center for Educational Statistics states that, as of May 2015, “About 59 percent of [first-time, full-time] students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2007 completed that degree within six years. The graduation rate for females (62 percent) was higher than the rate for males (56 percent).” But as pointed out above, those numbers are only for first-time, fulltime students. The overall completion rate is worse.

Strangely, in American higher education, the accepted standard is to measure graduation rates at four-year colleges on a six-year time frame. And evaluations of twoyear community colleges are now based on three-year graduation rates. Students incur significant debt and lost earnings with delays in attaining their postsecondary goals. Six years to receive a four-year degree deprives an eventual graduate of two years of income, plus they’ve added two more years of college debt.

How might we represent that impact? Let’s look at how the numbers add up. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for a bachelor’s degree recipient in the class of 2013 was more than $45,000. The American Institutes for Research found that associate’s-degree earners could expect to earn a starting salary of about $35,000. So, for every extra year at a public four-year college, the cost is $22,826 for extra attendance and $45,327 per year of delayed entry into the job market. That’s $68,153 per year of actual cost and lost opportunity. Two years tally up to $136,306—far greater than the average individual student debt for loans! For a public, two-year community college, it would be $15,933 more in cost of attendance for every extra year and $35,000 in lost income per year delay for a total of $50,933. According to a 2015 report from The Institute for College Access & Success, “Student Debt and the Class of 2014,” that cohort graduated with an average debt burden of $28,950 per borrower. The average college debt for graduates was lowest in Utah at $18,921 and highest in Delaware at $33,808. If our goal is to make college more affordable and provide a way to boost graduation rates with less debt overall, we must ensure, first, that students complete college, and second, that many more students graduate on time.

More students are working, and they are working more hours than ever before. Many can afford to attend school only part-time, extending the years until they graduate. More come to our campuses underprepared for college and then get trapped in broken remedial approaches that don’t help, as time keeps slipping away. Undeclared students are overwhelmed by too many choices and too little structure, causing aimless wandering and wasted semesters, even years. While not every student can or will graduate on time and for understandable reasons, something is clearly wrong when the overwhelming majority of public colleges graduate less than 50 percent of their full-time students in four years.

First, let’s focus on the right numbers. What is on-time graduation? We can measure graduation rates at “150 percent of time” (or six years), but we should no longer accept this metric as the standard for performance. Four years is an achievable goal. Why do we even reference “fouryear” colleges if the metric for completion is six years? The best estimate using IPEDS (the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data demonstrates that only 50 of the more than 580 public, four-year institutions in the United States have ontime graduation rates at or above 50 percent for their full-time students.

Why is that acceptable and how can we change it?

We must realize that students seldom receive, but definitely need, a direct, clearly articulated route to graduation. Board members should ensure institutional implementation of new policies and strategies that tackle head-on the practices that are the great drag on student progress: credits lost in transfer, unavailable critical or prerequisite courses, uninformed choices of majors, low credit accumulation each semester, broken remediation sequences, and excessive credit requirements.

Let’s consider what’s possible and learn from those who have demonstrated success.

Corequisite Remediation

Nearly one-third of students moving from high school to postsecondary studies require remedial courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which issues “The Nation’s Report Card,” reports that only 39 percent are college ready or, put another way, 61 percent may need remediation. Remediation costs us over $7 billion per year. How has your institution partnered with others in your state to improve college readiness? Provide information on what’s needed, but then turn to what your institution can and should do.

Students who are deemed not ready for college typically are banished to remedial courses that seldom result in student success. Diverting students to a non-credit remedial class causes at least a one-semester delay in gateway (core) course enrollment, adding to the probability of not graduating on time or, even more likely, causing such disruption that the student drops out. Corequisite remediation, recommended by Complete College America, places students directly into gateway courses with additional support so they can concurrently correct deficiencies and move ahead with core and prerequisite courses.

  • Through its Developmental Studies Redesign Initiative, Austin Peay State University (APSU) in Tennessee eliminated its two remedial math courses, elementary algebra and intermediate algebra, and instead offers enhanced sections of its two gateway, college-level mathematics courses. Students completing the corequisite workshop and core math courses have succeeded at more than twice the rate of those who previously took the traditional developmental courses and had a greater chance to graduate on time. Results were similar for remedial English.

And there’s more. “Four-Year Myth,” published in 2014 by Complete College America, summarizes a series of actions colleges and universities can take to improve completion—on time and under budget— that it calls Guided Pathways to Success (GPS). Using GPS, majors are organized into a semester-by-semester set of courses that leads to on-time completion, saving students and their families the time and money associated with extended time on campus.

Use meta majors and give students the opportunity to make informed choices. Undeclared students enter college and select from among a set of initial broad clusters of majors such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), social sciences, business, education, or liberal arts. As students progress, these meta majors (focus areas) narrow into more specific areas of study such as chemistry, accounting, psychology, or nursing. No student is considered “unclassified,” left to wander aimlessly through the curriculum.

  • The City Colleges of Chicago Reinvention initiative has led to a near doubling of the graduation rate and the awarding of the highest number of degrees in City Colleges’ history. Through its College to Careers initiative, City Colleges is better aligning its occupational programs in high-demand fields with the needs of employers and four-year institutions. City Colleges is working to ensure that each and every student has a clear, semesterby- semester map to graduation and post-completion success. Academic maps are organized into 10 meta majors, and each map is personalized with the help of an advisor to meet a student’s precise transfer/job interests, readiness level, and expected course loads.

Align mathematics to programs of study. College algebra has only one purpose: preparation for calculus, which most non-STEM majors do not need. Mathematics that is not relevant to programs of study and career goals presents a serious obstacle to college success. Instead, institutions should provide statistics and quantitative literacy, which better align with most non- STEM programs and lower the probability of failure in an unneeded remedial course.

  • The New Math Pathways Project, a joint initiative of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Association of Community Colleges, is a statewide approach to reforming college mathematics in Texas. The initiative, which involves 50 community colleges, includes the development and implementation of multiple math pathways with relevant and challenging content aligned to specific fields of study. Additionally, built-in support systems help students more quickly earn college-level credits in rigorous corequisite mathematics than they would in traditional remedial approaches.

Academic maps built with “15 to Finish.” Students should choose coherent programs, not random, individual courses. After students make the “big choices” of academic majors, all other choices, including the course sequence, are laid out for them. They now have a clear map to on-time completion that sets explicit expectations and requirements from day one to graduation. Terms should be designed to include at least 15 credits per semester or a minimum of 30 credits per year. Sequences that use summer coursework— in which students take 12 credits in the fall, 12 in the spring, and six in the summer—could be an acceptable alternative, unless the student would benefit more from a full-time summer job.

  • At Florida State University (FSU), degree maps combine with other strategies to increase graduation rates and close attainment gaps. Since starting degree maps in 2004, FSU has cut the number of students graduating with excess credits in half. And in 10 years, FSU’s on-time graduation rate for all students has increased 17 percentage points, rising to 61 percent. More significant, African-American, Hispanic, and firstgeneration Pell students graduate from FSU at significantly higher rates than the national average. Seventythree percent of African-AmericanFSU students graduated within six years in 2013, almost double the national average for this group. The six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students in 2013 (76 percent) was more than 50 percent higher than the national average.

Default students onto academic pathways. Students remain on their chosen path unless given approval to change by an adviser. If a student wants to explore outside his or her major, that could be enabled as intentional investigation, replacing aimless wandering. Students still should be able to chart their path to on-time graduation and see their progress along the way, staying on track and fully understanding the time and money consequences of making a change.

  • The University of Hawaii’s STAR for Students system allows students to track progress toward their degree program and ensure that they stay on track for ontime completion. The system provides students with information regarding program and credit requirements, as well as course availability. In addition, students can map out future semesters and assess how course selections will impact their time to degree. The system also helps students recalculate their pathways when changes are needed or issues arise.
  • Technical and vocational training programs at the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology have an average completion rate of 75 percent, with some centers graduating all of their students. Job placement rates also are high. Unlike with traditional approaches, students enroll in whole academic programs, not individual courses, streamlining the path to completion by removing the burdens of individual course selection and availability. Programs are offered Monday to Friday from 8 am to 3 pm, and attendance is taken. Finally, the complete program costs and the time it will take to graduate are clearly presented up front, allowing students to plan ahead and know with certainty when they will graduate. Many of the Colleges of Applied Technology’s more successful program elements were included in a new state law that created a unified communitycollege system, which is now adding structured scheduling.
  • At Boise State University, the Degree Tracker planning tool combines academic maps with a student’s academic record and preferred timeline to create an individualized path to graduation. The online tool provides a user-friendly interface that allows students and advisers to easily partner in the mission to graduate. The data extracted from Degree Tracker indicate course demand, advising interventions, and whether students are failing to meet the necessary benchmarks to follow their academic plan.

Use critical path courses. These must be completed each semester to certify that students are on track. These milestone courses provide realistic assessments of student progress and give students early signals about their prospects for success in their field of study. Essential and timely information can lead to a more efficient path if they change their major. It also eliminates the problem of students putting off challenging courses until the consequences of changing majors become too costly.

  • The Lumina Foundation, in partnership with Complete College America, has awarded Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee $1 million grants for the statewide implementation of GPS strategies. Through the use of default pathways, critical path courses, and other strategies, these states are working toward reform at scale that will place the majority of students in the majority of programs on highly structured pathways to completion.
  • In October 2013, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio were selected to participate in Complete College America’s Guided Pathways to Success in STEM Careers Initiative supported by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Through the implementation of GPS strategies such as academic maps, default pathways, and intrusive advising, these states are developing and executing plans to dramatically increase the number of students with highdemand STEM degrees.

Support students through intrusive academic advising. Innovations in technology allow support to be targeted to meet the needs of individual students. Early warning systems make it easy for institutions to track performance in required courses and target interventions when and where they are needed most. Academic advisers can focus their attention almost exclusively on students most in need of services instead of spreading themselves too thin.

  • Georgia State University’s use of intrusive advising has increased its graduation rates by more than 20 percentage points in the last 10 years. Pell students graduate at a rate of 53 percent. African- American students (57 percent) and Hispanic students (66 percent) now graduate at higher rates than the overall student body. In addition, Georgia State confers more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than does any other U.S. university.

Nearly 19 years ago, Western Governors University (WGU), independent of the work being done through Complete College America, began using several of the tactics mentioned above with considerable success. Time-to-degree averages 30 months—that’s just two and a half years, not four, and certainly not six. Over three-quarters of the students work full time and most have families. The average age is 38. How do they do it?

Let’s start with the concept of competency-based education. Award the degree when the student demonstrates the competencies required by the accredited program, not by how long he or she has physically been in a classroom. The competencies are jointly developed by nationally recognized academic and business leaders for each individual degree program. Those competencies then are mapped against rigorous courses that can be accessed online at a pace chosen by the student, not rigidly scheduled against personnel and room availability. When a student enrolls at WGU, a counselor develops (maps out) a timeline with dates that meet the student’s priorities for family, jobs, and degree goals. Then each student is assigned both a progress mentor (coach) and an academic mentor, also designated as a subject matter expert. Those mentors contact their assigned students a minimum of once per week to track progress, assess problem areas, and provide subject-matter assistance, both one-on-one and with cohorts of similar students.

If a student enrolls at WGU with prior college work or competencies gained through employment, this knowledge or competency is assessed against the degree standards; if it meets the criteria, the student moves immediately to the next course in sequence. Bottom line: Where traditional higher education holds time constant and lets learning vary, WGU holds learning constant and lets time vary. Degrees should not be awarded on the basis of seat time and semester credits. Degrees should be awarded based on competencies demonstrated by whatever form of learning the student has employed, regardless of source, using rigorously defined and administered assessments.

For boards: You have many demonstrated options from which to choose, but only after you understand your current situation. Ask for and expect to receive meaningful data on time-to-degree, completion rates, adoption of innovative approaches to demonstrate competencies, and feedback on employer satisfaction. Simply applying any or all of the previous recommendations without data and analytics won’t work. Time is the enemy; make it your friend.

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