Higher Education Confronts Its Own Achievement Gap
As college enrollments increase, policymakers explore what they can do to ensure students are successful once they get there and graduate within a reasonable amount of time.
More students are enrolling in the nation's higher education institutions, but many of them never earn a degree. How policymakers can make higher education more efficient and more responsive to its students' needs -- and thereby increasing the number of students who complete their education -- was the topic of discussion at a policy summit held by National Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday.
The summit's centerpiece was a report by Complete College America, compiled from data from universities, community colleges and other institutions in 33 states. In total, the data reflects more than 10 million students. National projections are based on the medians in each category.
Its most important finding was this: 75 percent of the higher education population is so-called "non-traditional" students. They commute to class, have families, work while they go to school -- usually a combination of the above.
Another finding: Students, both full-time and part-time, in all levels of education, many never receive a degree. Less than 30 percent of full-time students seeking a one-year vocational certificate receive one in two years. That numbers drops by half for part-time students. The same pattern follows for those pursuing two-year associate's degrees (19 percent of full-time students finish in four years; 8 percent of part-time students do) and four-year bachelor's degrees (61 percent of full-time students complete in eight years; 24 percent of part-time students do).
In light of these facts, policymakers agree a shift in focus is necessary: "from access to success," as Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago put it. Danette Gerald Howard, interim secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission acknowledged that this realization has happened fairly recently. Both Howard and Matt Gianneschi, deputy executive director for the Colorado Department of Higher Education, explained some of the strategies that their states were developing to address the problem.
"Doing the same things we've always done is not going to lead to different results just because we're focusing on different goals," Gianneschi said.
Remedial students are a major concern for higher ed officials. The Complete College America study found more than 50 percent of students seeking an associate's degree and 20 percent of those studying for a bachelor's degree need remedial classes. Those students are significantly less likely to graduate than their peers, according to the data.
Maryland and Colorado are two of eight states to win grants from Complete College America to address remedial students. In Maryland, officials are redesigning developmental math programs, Howard said. Rather than hold semester-long classes for remedial instruction, students will take an intensive, six-week remedial course that coincides with a course for which they earn credit. Colorado is using new data systems to more easily identify students in need of special attention. Both states are exploring ways to develop a "cohort experience" for remedial students, which would allow a group of students to take remedial and credit courses together, building a sense of camaraderie that will hopefully encourage them to stick with school, Howard explained.
Money -- or the lack thereof -- also presents a challenge, for both students and their schools, Gianneschi and Howard admitted. Student loan debt is a widely acknowledged problem, but one with a rather simple solution, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said. "Employability ought to be the focal outcome when public money is at play," he asserted.
How do policymakers ensure students are ready for gainful employment when they graduate? Gianneschi said Colorado is developing a longitudinal data system that would allow students and parents to access a "dashboard" of information. They could find any given school's graduation rate, average total debt for students upon receiving a degree, employment status of students after graduation and alumni satisfaction with their school. Those kinds of data should enable students to make better decisions about which schools to attend, making it more likely that they'll be successful, Gianneschi said.
Colorado and Maryland are also rethinking how they fund state institutions of higher education. Gianneschi said his state is introducing performance-based funding. Schools may soon receive state money based on their students' completion rates or how effectively the schools close attainment gaps for disadvantaged students. Maryland has considered linking enrollment-based funding on whether students are enrolled in entry-level or more advanced classes, Howard said, so schools would receive more funding for students enrolled in 300-level courses than 100-level introductory classes. "We want to incent retention, not just enrollment," Gianneschi said.
There are numerous other challenges facing educators who want to push more students toward success. Hyman pointed to the need for better coordination between community colleges and four-year universities when students transfer from the former to the latter. James Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, reiterated the Obama administration's position that more collaboration between K-12 and higher education would lead to better outcomes.
But most importantly, the panelists agreed, there is a need for experimentation, because there are no obvious models for success. So, Gianneschi argued, the federal government must create an environment where states are given flexibility, which will allow them to innovate and develop solutions.
The federal government "should be helping us provide appropriate incentives to institutions for their performance," Gianneschi said, acknowledging the role that the federal government could play financially as states are strapped for cash, "and hold us accountable. But let us be responsible for the ideas. Let us be the ones who are creative."
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