The Joe Biden administration’s proposal for student debt relief has sparked a discussion of several issues surrounding the higher education system in the United States. Some have criticized the program for its cost – estimated at $400 billion – fearing it covers too many relatively wealthy individuals, suggesting that income eligibility be reduced below the intended $125,000 per individual. More fundamentally, many have argued that while the program is a wise use of taxpayer funds, it misses fundamental weaknesses of higher education, namely an unacceptably low completion rate, an overreliance on university loans and high and rapidly rising costs.
In recent decades, the United States has achieved a high level of post-secondary education attendance, with approximately 90% of high school graduates receiving some form of higher education. However, college completion rates have lagged and are clearly a fundamental problem, standing at 60% nationally and much lower for disadvantaged minorities. The nation loses because the full potential of an educated workforce is not realized. Individuals lose out because the greatest burden of the student debt challenge is borne by those who start college, rack up debt, but never benefit from a completed education through better job prospects.
Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
There are various groups that are disproportionately likely to experience difficulty completing their college education. Many students arrive ill-prepared and must take developmental classes that re-teach high school reading, writing and math. Students who must take these courses are less likely to graduate. Likewise, part-time students graduate at lower rates than full-time students. For mature students, who are often part-timers, the challenge of balancing school, family and, often, work, is the common factor contributing to a disappointing completion rate. Not surprisingly, groups at the lower end of the socioeconomic status spectrum have lower completion rates and are more likely to attend schools leading to an associate degree. Rural areas have lower college completion rates. Finally, a much smaller proportion of “re-entrant” students, that is, those who drop out and re-enter college, graduate.
Efforts are underway at various institutions nationwide that appear to significantly improve this situation, particularly for those groups that have disproportionately lower completion rates. The “guided paths” have proven themselves in many establishments. These programs generally have three design elements in common. They start by helping students get started on the path, with clear and specific guidelines for students to earn credits toward completion while avoiding credits that don’t contribute to a degree in the chosen major. The next step is to keep students on ‘track’, usually by requiring regular meetings with advisors who focus on reviewing progress against the agreed-upon academic plan. Finally, these programs share the goal of making sure students learn, often by requiring participation in study groups, encouraging work with classmates on assignments, and getting students to have conversations. with teachers about readings and ideas outside the classroom. Some of the more advanced “guided pathways” initiatives use data analytics to determine the causes of student success and failure; while others rely on technology, such as apps and “gamification,” to encourage appropriate student behaviors.
As a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences puts it: “College and university leadership, with the full commitment of faculty and staff, must make completion a top priority of institution, with a clear focus on understanding the diverse needs of students. Institutional resource allocation decisions should be reviewed with the lens of whether investments are likely to increase student completion without compromising quality.
A third of students change institutions at least once and the accompanying transfer of academic credit from one institution to another is often a messy and frustrating experience for them. Many lose credits or don’t get them accepted, which contributes to their dropping out along the way. Public and private universities should work together to align their learning programs. This should include implementing a transferable core of general education, defining transfer pathway maps in popular disciplines, and transfer-focused advising systems that help students anticipate what they will need. to transfer without losing their momentum in the field of their choice.
While much of the responsibility for improving completion rates lies with students and colleges themselves, partnerships with employers can also help improve completion rates. Companies can help students understand the relevance of their education for future employment through internships, co-op programs, and research opportunities. And they can help schools produce content that meets the needs of the modern workplace through co-development of courses, curricula, and even whole programs, as well as co-teaching.
Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
Finally, federal and state government leaders can help by adopting comprehensive strategies to make college completion a state and national priority. State and federal governments should use discretionary funds to award competitive grants that encourage evidence-based approaches to improve completion rates.
The path to America’s renewal clearly requires a focused and comprehensive effort to improve and sustain much higher college completion rates.