• September 5, 2015

17 States Pledge to Increase Graduation Rates, Joining a New National Effort

Seventeen states have promised to develop specific plans to improve their college-completion rates, announcing on Tuesday that they were joining a national program aimed at helping institutions meet President Obama's goal of having the world's best-educated adult population by 2020.

Participating states will be required to set yearly goals for increasing graduation rates, including benchmarks for individual campuses, and to publicly report data on their progress. Complete College America, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that organized the national graduation program, the Complete College America Alliance of States, will provide advice from higher-education experts and help applying for federal grants to support the states' completion goals.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Lumina Foundation for Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation have also joined the alliance, pledging to continue financing programs intended to increase students' success at college.

"We all acknowledge that the objective of access to higher education is not just entry, it is completion," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which works to help more students attend college.

The effort is one of many similar projects intended to increase college-completion rates. The United States ranks 10th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, Mr. Obama called on the United States to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. The Lumina Foundation has set its own goal of getting 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree or credential by 2025, a figure the foundation has said would require 23 million more degrees than were awarded in 2009.

The new project is different from other efforts because it focuses on putting new state policies in place, Mr. Merisotis said. The states will be able to build on practices that have already been suggested.

"What's really valuable here is CCA is really well-positioned to push some of these best ideas across the finish line," Mr. Merisotis said.

Strong Interest in Completion

Complete College America, founded last year with the sole goal of increasing college graduation, had intended to work with fewer than 10 states, said Stan Jones, the organization's president. But interest exceeded expectations, he said, with some states still signing up on the day before the announcement.

The 17 participating states have a wide range of records on college completion. Some are among the nation's best educated, including Massachusetts, where 53 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have college degrees, and Connecticut, where 46 percent do. Other states that joined the program have much lower rates, such as West Virginia and Nevada, where only 28 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have college degrees.

The other 13 states are Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Utah. [Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Missouri as a participating state and omitted Maryland.]

A push to improve higher education will pose a challenge for state governments struggling with declining budgets and already cutting money for colleges and universities.

"Our higher-education system here is taking some fearsome cuts," said Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat. "The question is, basically, Are you going to sit there in a difficult time with your legs crossed and bemoan your fate, or are you going to use this to move something forward?"

Some college-completion programs would have to wait for more money, he said, such as efforts that require adding staff members. But other changes, like improving transfer policies, would require relatively few dollars, he said.

The states will set their own goals, including campus-specific benchmarks for graduation rates, and develop plans to meet them. The alliance will require the states to find ways to ensure that fewer students need remedial courses, to create faster paths to degrees and credentials, and to give students financial incentives to complete their degrees on time.

In Tennessee the state legislature recently approved several programs that align with the effort's suggested goals, including distributing higher-education funds according to completion rates instead of enrollment and removing remedial classes from four-year universities.

Many of the changes are meant to focus on helping advance students who enroll in college but do not finish, Mr. Bredesen said.

"If you're running a retail store that's not doing well, maybe the first question you should ask is what happened to the people who walked in the front door and walked out without buying anything, rather than trying to pump more people into the store," Mr. Bredesen said.


1. eacowan - March 02, 2010 at 04:15 pm

This industrial model of "completion rates" (and "retention rates" as well) willl mean the death of high-quality college instruction. Already at one campus that I know well, faculty have reportedly been directed by the administration not to fail any students. The consequence of this will be grade-inflation and devaluation of the degree.

Such a fixation on retention and completion implies a view of the college campus as a kind of "factory" that produces "product". Perhaps colleges should adopt as their motto the Latin phrase "CARNEM MOVEMVS"... --E.A.C.

2. cwinton - March 02, 2010 at 04:26 pm

I agree with eacowan. The end result will be a devaluation of collegiate degrees similar to what has happended with high school diplomas.

3. profjrdn - March 02, 2010 at 05:11 pm

"The end result will be a devaluation of collegiate degrees similar to what has happended with high school diplomas."

Too late. That horse is out of the barn. But, in the end, we profs do what we get paid to do and what our state governments insist we do: Admit bodies, retain bodies, diplomatize bodies.

4. nrklomp - March 02, 2010 at 05:31 pm

Improving graduation rates will turn Higher Ed into High School.
Instead of pushing to improve a system with a proven standard and/or broaden access to that system, we should fix the K-12 system and let it be ok that people don't go to college or at least not straight out of high school. Most of the information that students are exposed to as undergraduates is too often just redundancy for what they didn't get in high school. A four year degree is not everyone's birthright and it shouldn't be. Sixteen years in school is in fact not for everyone.

That is not elitism. It is just difference. Manual labor folk are important and necessary, and a university education doesn't make someone smart anymore than the lack of one makes them dumb.
There are more ways of thinking well than are found in the universities; Matthew B. Crawford's excellent article in NY Times last May makes the case better than I can: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html?_r=3&em=&pagewanted=all.

The push to educate waters down the research and the "higher" of university thinking (higher, of course, is an unfortunate word, but it can be taken to denote difference, a term the geeks use to feel better about themselves--speaking as a card carrying geek). When everyone must go to college then the geeks become too diluted and their thinking becomes lost in the crowd of folks who would be better off and happier doing something else.

5. speterfreund - March 03, 2010 at 08:38 am

All we have done is to push the concept of a trophy for everybody up from peewee soccer to the level of the baccalaureate. And while we are using the sports analogy, why not recognize that the competition _should_ be stiffer and the standards _should_ be higher when one moves from high school to college?

BTW, has anyone grokked the irony that Bill Gates, one of the prime movers behind this project, is a Harvard dropout?

6. tislove - March 03, 2010 at 08:42 am

Comments 1-4 are vintage "tyranny of the or" where good work to retain students results in lower standards -- the proverbial forced choice. Faculty need to use their considerable intellect in the "liberation of the and" mode where they seek to achieve high quality instruction and higher graduation rates. The combination of outstanding teaching and personal attention to the student should increase graduation rates while at the same time improve the quality of academic preparation for those graduates. Let's stop bemoaning our fate and start making a difference in the lives our students and the quality of life for our country.

7. tridaddy - March 03, 2010 at 08:42 am

As seems to be typical we have established an end result without establishing or stating what the future is to be. What do we envision the future to be when it comes to individuals and education. Setting a completion number without deeply thinking about the outcome it yields can lead to another set of problems. Will the result be a glut of over "trained" individuals for too few jobs or individuals with UG degrees that only got the degree b/c it was available? nkrlomp makes valid points in his first two paragraphs. Increasing the number of individuals holding a college degree for the sake of "national bragging and ranking" is an empty, self-gratifying goal at the very least. Just for the record I'm a university administrator, so I'm not anti-college degree.

8. willismg - March 03, 2010 at 08:55 am

Reminds me of the current TV commercial about the tennis player when "anybody" is allowed onto the court and chaos reigns...

I became a high school physics teacher in a rather poorly regarded school several years ago from a career in engineering to try to discover what the "problem" was. Rest assured, this is it. Trust me, when the message is "More people (especially those in Group "X") must graduate", that is exactly what happens. It's downright magic the way it works out... Whatever your metric, standards adjust to meet the metric.

As a teacher in a high school not exactly known for its academics, I routinely had to pass students who had no business in a high school physics class. I even started to game the system by letting many of them into AP Physics, and passing them. Word got around about my "rigor" amongst the borderline-to-capable students leading to an increase in the physics numbers. In my defense, while I graded VERY lax, the content in my class was, I believe, up to par as evidenced by the type of schools at which my true audience matriculated and successfully completed.

The alternative (no grade inflation) would have meant the loss of the AP classes altogether for those few (8-10 per year) who did benefit from the availability of a true AP Physics curriculum (and thence regularly to such places as CMU, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Penn State, UMd, and others).

This was all necessary because of the idea that the numbers, not the best interests of students, drove all decisions.

9. bdr8y - March 03, 2010 at 09:15 am

I wonder if the first commentators own children, if they have them, hold postsecondary credentials? What is more, I find it so interesting that folks who preach the gospel of educational glut often hold degrees themselves. What "devaluation of degree" roughly tranlates to is that the wage premiums and social/cultural distinctions between rich and poor are minimized to the point where the credential does not provide those who hold the degree with enough distinction to demand higher salaries or social superiority. This social reproduction function of education is what Bowles, Gintis, and Bourdieu have preached for years, and most recently David Labaree. Intellectual dillution, as one poster lamented, is simply an absurd concept. I am all for suggesting that not all persons should hold a degree, but only when the children of America's top earners decide they want to be laborers rather than college educated. In the end what we are really talking about here is keeping the nation's poorest in their place. -Brian D. Reed, University of Virginia

10. cogprof - March 03, 2010 at 09:28 am

Could someone please explain to me how we're supposed to graduate more students while also meeting this requirement: "The alliance will require the states to find ways to ensure that fewer students need remedial courses"? I guess they just want us to recruite better prepared students from elsewhere?

11. 22265447 - March 03, 2010 at 10:18 am

60% of Americans should hold a college degree? Does a society need 60% of its citizens to be college-educated, or as another poster asked, are we just going to create a glut of college-educated people who are un- or under-employed? Where's the evidence? And, except for the fact that it has a ton of money to dangle in front of cash-strapped colleges, why should Lumina and the like drive education policy or practice?

12. jffoster - March 03, 2010 at 11:57 am

Mr. 9, a professor I am; but a quarryman my brother is;.at least as sharp as my mind is his, but he knew college wasn't for him and had the good sense and courage to boldly not go.

But by this whole article and thread reminded I am of an aria in n THE GONDOLIERS' 'There lived a king...',

"When everybody's somebody, nobody's anybody."

13. babbalouie - March 03, 2010 at 02:17 pm

What I find particularly disturbing is that if the level of college completion rates stays the same, then fewer people will be able to use the term "CARNEM MOVEMVS" in online article comments.

14. cwinton - March 03, 2010 at 02:48 pm

With all due respect to bdr8y, I don't think this has anything to do with keeping the nation's poorest in their places. There is no benefit to anyone in rendering a credential meaningless. The value of the degree is in the achievement, and an achievement is not something you just give away, which is a likely outcome of what is being proposed. I'm not interested in going to a doctor (or an auto mechanic for that matter) lacking a meaningful credential, although some people apparently are quite willing to do so. And by the way, I have a daughter who by choice is making a perfectly good living by waiting tables in a restaurant. And yes, she has a collegiate degree (actually 3 of them) so I don't quite get why bdr8y thinks there is a choice between being a "laborer" and being college educated. He should be concerned not with the choices available to my children and others like them, but with the lack of choice avaiable to those who don't have the means and family environment to even aspire to attend a school such as his.

15. mgreppin - March 03, 2010 at 03:31 pm

In reference to the first comment, perhaps the charge was "not allow any students to fail" instead of "not to fail any students." The prior would encourage all university employees - faculty, staff and administrators - to do more (and maybe do things differently) to help students succeed. Higher education as we know it is changing. If we dig in our heels and demand to do what we've always done and expect better results, we're fooling ourselves. Instead of criticizing one group or another and resisting any attempts at improvement, we should ALL find ways to improve what we should be doing - providing excellent education to the students who will ultimately lead our governments, industries and services in the future. Unfortunately, we must now do so with fewer resources than before. If we plan to survive and succeed, we must change and improve.

16. handley - March 03, 2010 at 04:20 pm

Such scorn! That's a shame.

I firmly believe that retention and grad rates are improved by raising, not lowering, expectations. Handing out Fs is easy -- any idiot can do that. Helping ill-prepared students to learn complex material is harder, but worth it. We all know faculty members who manage to do it. That's good teaching, and should be emulated.

17. mmccllln - March 03, 2010 at 04:35 pm

I agree with #12. I have my degrees because they were required to initially get and then keep my chosen job. My 19-year-old nephew bumbled through high school just enough to get his diploma, but works hard and can fix anything. Guess who makes more money? He does and that's just fine with me because we are both doing what we enjoy.
A college degree is not a free pass to success and opportunity. Finding what one is good at and doing it is.
It's not about graduating more students. It's about removing this ridiculous notion that is preached at the secondary level that college is for everyone. When that mindset changes, graduation rates at the college level will improve. We don't need a federal, state, or non-profit program to determine that.

18. eric_gates - March 03, 2010 at 06:58 pm

Most (not all) of the comments above reflect a far too common failure of the imagination in higher education and k-12 in the U.S. today:

1) for a variety of reasons, the remedial courses killing retention rates aren't the cool ones. It's basic English Grammar and Composition, and Basic Math. Pretty pedestrian, but essential, basic courses.

A lot of today's higher ed students come in with life experiences so completely foreign to the professors teaching them, that the prof's can't see that these students posses unique talents that will lead them in unpredictable directions.

So a liberal education is critical for ***most*** of us (a few Bill Gates geniuses will experience a confluence of fortunate events and become icons standing for "Genius!" (Bill Gates would have likely been a poor programmer under many other circumstances--his original brilliant plan was a copy of BASIC on every PC). Stuff happened.

Most kids can learn basic math and basic English.

The failure of the imagination is a failure to apply basic Cognitive Science to the education of children all along the way.

Companies like smart.fm, Carnegie Learning, ALEKS, and a few others are proving that re-imagining education as partially an individual task rather than a purely homogenous group activity using technology can improve outcomes while saving money.

And once the kids get into the groove and feel confident and successful, the grumpy old academics had better watch out!

In closing:

I am the very model of an angry academic Twit

I like to argue and belittle colleagues, friends, associates

I like to throw my weight a bit

I am so very full of it

I am the very model of an angry academic Twit!

19. bdr8y - March 03, 2010 at 07:50 pm

Nowhere does this initiative, nor do I, suggest giving away the credential. What I am simply responding to is the not so unspoken sentiment in many of the initial posts that equity and excellence cannot coexist, as if increasing graduation rates means lowering the bar. I am suggesting quite the opposite, set expectations high, but provide those from economically and educationally challenged backgrounds some extra help to succeed. Also, there is more to student success than simple academic remediation, which unfortunately is what the thread has been reduced to, but includes financial aid, social support, increasing student efficacy, and so on. Moreover, I am not suggesting that one is EITHER a laborer or academic, but that persons from low-SES backgrounds and students-of-color are rarely given the option to choose among the two. Your daughter, unlike low-SES students who do not have the credential, can walk away from waiting tables while they cannot. So, if you read my initial statement more closely, you will find that what I am talking about is the lack of options for those from less resourced backgrounds.

20. bdr8y - March 03, 2010 at 07:52 pm

Aaaaaa college degree is like good starting pitching in baseball. While it does not promise success, it sure makes it more difficult to get by without it.

21. knmys - March 03, 2010 at 10:36 pm

In a time when the economy can't provide enough jobs for people looking for work, it seems silly to push for higher graduation rates from college: College graduates are piling up without enough places for them, formerly 'BA/BS required' positions are now seeking 'GED or equivalent' workers because they can't afford to hire college grads.

Instead of trying to force graduation rates up (which ultimately means watering down the rigor of the courses and/or the value of the degree, no way around that), states, colleges, and businesses should work on finding ways to provide more employment opportunities for those students who DO graduate with college degrees.

22. tridaddy - March 04, 2010 at 09:33 am

brd8y states "In the end what we are really talking about here is keeping the nation's poorest in their place." Does brd8y presume to actually know his statement is true? How condescending and presumptious. I don't think that most of the folks posting on this topic thought to themselves, "Oh my goodness, this will help the poor folks out of the trenches which might make them more powerful and then maybe even kind of like me." This idea of a greater percentage of the US population have a BS degree has merit if sought for the proper reason(s). But simply trying to increase the number of degrees just for the sake of doing it, is no different that what has happened at many research institutions where they chased a ranking in the NSF R&D standing. Many schools moved up in the rankings and now they wonder how they will provide the necessary funds to sustain the people and buildings. Eventually, it all comes crashing down. So, why not be reasonable in our approach. Provide the best, well-rounded k-12 education that prepares students to pursue their ideal, their dream whatever it may be.

23. 22256297 - March 04, 2010 at 07:27 pm

Cognitive science ... indeed ... it holds the answers.

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