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

March 02, 2010

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.