For Student Success, Stop Debating and Start Improving
April 13, 2012
Historically, higher education has fueled social and economic mobility in America. But today that contribution is at risk. Attainment gaps between high- and low-income students have doubled over the past 10 years. Only 9 percent of students from low-income households have earned any postsecondary credentials by the time they are 26, compared with more than 50 percent of students from higher-income households. We must do far more, and with far more speed, than we are doing now to close this gap. If we can ensure that the majority of today’s low-income young adults earn credentials beyond high school, they will qualify for family-supporting jobs and set their children on a path of upward mobility—a powerful way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
The United States has a long way to go to reach that goal—a problem not just for low-income families but for all of us. Completion rates have stayed stubbornly flat for the past 30 years, despite vastly increased access to higher education and increased spending. While there is promising movement, we are not pursuing change with anywhere near the urgency or focus required to make a real dent in the problem, especially compared with countries that have surpassed us in raising postsecondary completion rates for 25- to 34-year-olds.
My perspective on these issues grows from my work over the past five years leading the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments to improve postsecondary success for low-income students. I have seen up close the multiple challenges that face higher education in these times of budget cuts and increased public concern over the value and cost of college. Yet in my experience, three broad but unproductive areas of debate distract us from solving the central challenges. Here’s what ought to be happening:
1) Institutions should improve student success by focusing on practices within their control instead of blaming external factors.
When asked about the challenges they face in helping more students graduate, higher-education leaders tend to list external forces, such as budget cuts and poor academic preparation. Yet regardless of whether states or the federal government restore needed support, or our K-12 system produces better-prepared graduates, institutions can do more with mechanisms directly within their control to help the students they enroll.
Research has shown that institutional practices make a big difference in student success. Similar institutions (of comparable size, selectivity, and student composition) vary more significantly in their completion rates and success with underrepresented populations within segments than they do between segments—with high performers outpacing low performers by as much as 40 percentage points.
Institutions can directly affect student success by customizing learning and support, redesigning placement tests and developmental education, and reducing excess credits and the time it takes to get a degree. By decreasing excess time to degree and increasing completion rates, colleges could also achieve productivity gains and thus enroll and serve more students.
Effective strategies start with a clear vision of who today’s students are. The majority are nontraditional in some way—they work and go to school; they don’t live on campus; they take longer than expected to graduate. Equally important, the fastest-growing populations are those historically most underrepresented and underserved—first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.
Higher education needs a culture shift that rewards colleges as much for innovating to improve success for those students as the current culture rewards them for improving their institutional rankings. And let me be clear: This shift must involve the full spectrum of higher-education institutions.
We also need smarter collaboration among colleges because how students attend college has changed as well. The new norm is “swirl”—students attend more than one institution, sometimes simultaneously. They piece together credits and courses, often online. One-third of all students change institutions at some time before earning degrees, and 27 percent transfer across state lines. All trends indicate that we will see more swirl, not less, in the years ahead. In response, we need more-transparent information to help students stay on track, better ways to assess the quality of learning at different kinds of institutions, and clearer transfer pathways.
2) Give students more-structured academic programs that accelerate their progress toward degrees.
Five years ago, there was significant concern that increasing attention to completion would weaken commitment to access and quality. While those concerns remain, today’s debate focuses more on how to define “success” so that it includes all three dimensions. Still, critics of the “completion agenda” worry that it will degrade quality by constraining choice, thus shortchanging liberal-arts learning and forcing students to forgo personal growth as they hurry through the undergraduate experience.
We are learning that structured (and often limited) choice works best for most students. Honors programs in elite colleges and professional education in business, law, and medicine embody structured choice. If this works for the best-prepared students, we should provide it to those who need it most. For example, a recent study by the Community College Research Center shows that community-college students who enter a specific program of study within their first year are much more likely to earn credentials and/or transfer than are students who enter a concentration a year or two later.
Programs of study in two- and four-year colleges do not themselves require narrowing. They can be designed to guarantee exposure to different subject areas, to promote critical thinking, and to allow students to challenge assumptions and debate ideas. For example, in designing a new general-education associate degree in applied sciences, the faculty at Tennessee’s community colleges collectively determined the required courses, including philosophy.
We need to help more students enter structured programs of study as soon as they can. But that will require institutions to make the trade-offs in what constitutes a high-quality program of study, rather than leave it to students…