College leaders and policymakers are rightly concerned about the percentage of incoming students who graduate in a reasonable period of time. Although there have been numerous reports and commissions at the university, state, and national level to improve college completion rates, about the same percentage of incoming students graduate college now as a decade ago. This spurred the creation of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group of college presidents from various types of public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. This group released their report on improving graduation rates today, which offers few new suggestions and repeats many of the same concerns of past commissions.
The report made the following recommendations, with my comments below:
Recommendation 1: Change campus culture to boost student success.
We’ve heard this one before, to say the least. The problem is that few campus-level innovations have been “scalable”—or able to expand to other colleges with the same results. Other programs appear promising, but have never been rigorously evaluated or cost a lot of money. Rigorous evaluation is essential to determine what we can learn from other colleges’ apparent successes.
Recommendation 2: Improve cost-effectiveness and quality.
In theory, this sounds great—and many of the recommendations sound reasonable. But policymakers and college leaders should be concerned about any potential cost savings resulting in a lower-quality education. A slightly less personalized education for a lower price may be a worthwhile tradeoff and pass a cost-effectiveness test, but these concerns should be addressed.
A bigger concern not addressed regarding the cost of education is the actual cost of teaching a given course. First-year students tend to subsidize upper-level undergraduates, and all undergraduates tend to subsidize doctoral students. Much more research needs to be done about the costs of individual courses in order to provide lower-cost offerings to certain groups of students.
Recommendation 3: Make better use of data to boost success.
The commission calls for better use of institutional-level data to identify at-risk students and keep students on track to graduation. They call for more students to be included in the federal IPEDS dataset, which currently only tracks first-time, full-time, traditional-age students at their first institution of attendance. While this would be an improvement, I would like to see a pilot test of a student-level dataset instead of an institutional-level dataset. This would be much better for identifying student success patterns for groups with a lower probability of success.
The report also had a few notable omissions. First of all, the decision to exclude leaders of for-profit colleges is troubling. While many for-profit colleges have low completion rates, their cost structure (in terms of tracking per-student expenditures) is worth examining and they do disproportionately serve at-risk students. There is no reason to leave out an important, if not controversial, sector of higher education. Second, the typical text on declining public support for higher education (on a per-student basis) was present. While it might make college presidents feel good, any requests for additional funding in this political and economic climate need to be more closely tied to improving college completion rates. Finally, little attention was paid to the different sectors of higher education sharing best practices in spite of their often symbiotic relationship.
I don’t expect more than a few months to go by before the next commission issues a very similar report to this one. Stakeholders in the higher education arena need to think of how potential success stories can actually be brought to scale to benefit a meaningful number of students.