College Attainment: Throwing a Complete Game

The U.S. once had the world’s highest percentage of adults with a college degree, but has now dropped to 10th, according to the OECD. In an attempt to reverse this slide, a number of policymakers and foundations have sought to make increased degree attainment a national priority. President Obama has articulated the goal that America will regain the world’s highest rate of degree attainment and challenged every American to complete at least one year of postsecondary education. The Lumina Foundation for Education, likewise, has set a goal to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials from the under 40% today to 60% by the year 2025, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to double the number of low-income adults who earn postsecondary degrees or other credentials by age 26.

Increasing the number and percentage of Americans with postsecondary education will require a number of strategies, including increasing capacity at colleges and universities and providing access to high-quality college education for more Americans.

But these ambitious goals cannot be met without also dramatically increasing the completion rates at our public colleges and universities. College completion rates in the U.S. are troubling: At public, four-year institutions, fewer than 55% of students earn a degree within six years, while at public, two-year institutions, fewer than 30% of students earn a degree within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Overall, only half of the nation’s students will ever receive the degree they sought to earn. These lost students, who have already demonstrated their desire for postsecondary education and made steps toward reaching it, hold significant potential for being among America’s critical next generation of college-educated workers.

States are the key

Almost three quarters (74%) of America’s college students are enrolled in public institutions of higher education, according to the U.S. Education Department. Since states often have statutory control over public higher education and provide the largest single source of funding, state leaders hold critical levers—and are uniquely accountable—for reshaping policies and improving outcomes in public higher education.

While implementing dramatic reforms may seem daunting to state policymakers in the midst of budget crises, focusing on college completion is critical for states, even—and perhaps especially—in these challenging economic times. First, increasing completion rates will allow America to meet the needs of a new economy that rewards knowledge and innovation. In the next 10 years, more than 60% of jobs will require a college education; indeed, the jobs currently growing the fastest require either an associate or bachelor’s degree or a certificate, according to research at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce. Second, college completion can bring positive outcomes to individual students, including increased wages and benefits, plus non-monetary benefits such as better health and better outcomes for future generations, according to 2007 College Board research by Sandy Baum and Jennifer Ma. The current economic crisis has demonstrated the importance of education for individuals and families: Unemployment rates are more than twice as high for those with just a high school diploma (10.9%) than with those with a bachelor’s degree or higher (4.7%), reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Third, these individual benefits translate to significant societal and state benefits, including increased tax revenues and decreased reliance on state services, broader civic participation and increases in the earnings of all workers as overall educational attainment rates rise.[1] College completion is truly a tide that raises all boats.

Joining with other national groups in making college completion a priority, Complete College America (CCA) has set a goal that by 2020, six in 10 young adults in the U.S. will have a degree or certificate, up from the 38% of adults ages 25-34 hold who now hold a college degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2008 American Community Survey.[2] Such a large increase in completion rates and educational attainment will require more than tinkering around the edges; we need major changes in the way public higher education conceives of and delivers postsecondary education to today’s generation of students—we need innovation at scale.

Bold action

The first step to enabling these bold changes is improved data collection, without which policymakers are hampered in their efforts to analyze barriers and identify opportunities for improvement, show progress over time, and hold individuals and institutions accountable. Much of the data collected today (particularly by the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Data Systems, or IPEDS) fail to adequately capture college completion rates for huge numbers of America’s students—especially part-time and transfer students. Nor does IPEDS allow for disaggregation by ethnicity, income or by age groups, all of which are necessary in order to close gaps and ensure that postsecondary success rates are keeping up with the dramatic demographic shifts taking place across the country. Collecting data that are comparable across institutions and states will also help to identify barriers to student achievement and guide actions that might improve student success. In addition to completion, these data should include measures of progress and the intermediate milestones that research has shown predict student success in earning a degree or certificate.

In addition to collecting and analyzing the data, a number of other state policy levers are critical for driving improvements in college completion. States have the opportunity to influence policy by using performance funding, by transforming the delivery of developmental (remedial) education, and restructuring the delivery models of higher education to meet the needs of today’s new generation of students—both young and adult. [See “Putting Money Where the Mouth Is Ways to Build Momentum for College Completion,” The New England Journal of Higher Education, Dennis Jones.]

Performance funding ties institutional appropriations to outcomes, not simply to enrollments, and allows states to align their fiscal policies with their statewide goals for workforce development and economic prosperity. For example, states can provide funding based on the number of courses completed or the number of degrees and credentials earned. While the use of performance funding has been controversial and its implementation uneven, states can emphasize specific goals by providing funding incentives in areas such as the success of low-income or underrepresented students or degrees produced in key industry sectors such as health care, engineering, and technology.[3]

States must also take on remedial education; while evidence on the effectiveness of remedial education is mixed, for far too many students, it represents a dead end. Students who need remediation are required to take courses that do not count toward their degrees, adding time and expense to their studies with dismal results. More than 40% of all students (and 60% of community college students) enter postsecondary education needing remediation, but fewer than 25% of students who enter remedial courses ever earn a degree or certificate, according to research by Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Innovative programs in community colleges have shown that remediation can be improved by targeting it through improved diagnosis of student needs, tailoring it to focus only on those skills that students need, and helping move students as quickly as possible into courses that count towards a degree. Specifically, remediation can be embedded within credit-bearing courses, technology can target specific academic deficiencies, and anchor assessments can be performed while students are still in high school to accelerate their progress once they arrive in college (e.g., the California State University “Early Start” program and Tennessee’s community colleges’ implementation of the National Center for Academic Transformation remedial education models).

Finally, public colleges and universities must restructure the delivery of higher education to meet the needs of today’s students. No longer does the majority of students attend full-time, live on campus, and complete a degree within four years; instead, most students are attending school part-time while juggling families and work. Promising models suggest that restructuring the delivery of postsecondary education with a focus on transparency, consistency and structure leads to significantly better outcomes for students. These models use block scheduling, offer degree programs instead of courses, take advantage of the known benefits of cohorts and learning communities and integrate remediation into credit-bearing or career-oriented courses.[4]

Each state faces its own set of demographic and economic challenges, but increasing educational attainment is a common goal for state policymakers as they seek to ensure the future health of their economies. Twenty-two states have joined the Complete College America Alliance of States in order to elevate college completion in their policy agendas and develop plans to make dramatic increases in attainment over the next decade. These and other states have also been leaders in helping their public colleges make improvements in access and completion through participation in national initiatives like Achieving the Dream and Access to Success. These complementary efforts have shown promising results, yet in light of the promise postsecondary education holds for each individual, family, and community—and to meet our goals as a nation—there is much left to do.

Stan Jones is founder and president of Complete College America. David Soo is state policy analyst at Complete College America.


[1] Sandy Baum and Jennifer Ma note in their report Education Pays: “Estimates suggest that controlling for other factors, a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of the population holding a four-year college degree leads to a 1.9% increase in the wages of workers without a high school diploma and a 1.6% increase in the wages of high school graduates.”

[2] No reliable national data are available on the percentage of adults who hold a postsecondary certificate. The president and other national organizations, including CCA, believe that completion should be defined as a earning a bachelor’s or associate degree, or a certificate of at least one year in length that has demonstrated labor market value (Bosworth, 2010; Carnevale, Strohl & Smith, 2009; Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, 2005; Wheary & Orozco, 2010).

[3] Under its current performance funding system, Indiana rewards increases in the on-time graduation rates at public colleges and universities, increases in transfer rates for community colleges, and increases in the numbers of low-income graduates. Ohio has also phased in a performance funding system that utilizes different formulas for each sector (community colleges, branch campuses, and research universities) and incorporates progress indicators for community colleges.

[4] For examples of successful highly structured and accelerated programs, see the City University of New York (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP); Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP); and the Tennessee Technology Centers.


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