Increase completion rates and reduce inequities among different student populations.
The Commission envisions a future that depends on most Americans obtaining and benefiting from high-quality undergraduate education. Too few students who start at an American college or university complete their programs, and systematic variations in completion are linked to family income level, race and ethnicity, and gender. Many students who leave college without a degree are worse off than when they entered, unable to repay student loan debt. Low completion rates have been stubbornly resistant to improvement and require a serious redesign of institutional processes informed by data, deep partnerships with other entities, and a supportive state and federal environment. If a quality undergraduate education is the key to opportunity in the twenty-first century—an open door to a wider world—it should not be subject to a means test. The stakes, for individual citizens and for the country as a whole, are much too high. Students who will be entering colleges and universities over the next 20–30 years will come from all cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; they will earn their education through an expanding variety of modes and institutions, according to schedules of their own making; and they will, like past cohorts, face multiple barriers to success. These students will need to complete their degrees. Colleges and universities, businesses, community-based organizations, and state and federal governments all have a role to play in this massive endeavor. The Commission makes the following recommendations for improvement in areas related to completion.
College and university leadership, with the full engagement of faculty and staff, must make completion a top institutional priority, with a clear focus on understanding the diverse needs of students. Institutional resource allocation decisions must be viewed through the lens of whether investments are likely to increase student completion without compromising quality. More large-scale experimentation and research are needed, as is a commitment to continuous improvement by experimenting institutions. Multiple interventions should be integrated in coherent, scalable efforts:
Data collection should enable institution-specific insights through nuanced analyses and should support rigorous evaluation and careful assessment of completion-related student interventions. Institutions must be able to analyze, compare, and report student-level data on persistence and progression, disaggregated by student characteristics that include family income, first-generation college-going status, enrollment status, race and ethnicity, and gender.
Students should have opportunities to make meaningful, personalized connections with faculty and staff. There is strong evidence that active guidance and interventions grounded in good data are valuable in promoting student success.
More attention must be paid to understanding and assisting students from groups with the lowest completion rates. Summer bridge programs, accelerated remediation, and the provision of emergency funds are examples of proven strategies that benefit students who struggle to graduate.
Expand experimentation with and research on guided pathways designs, which already help many institutions increase completion and reduce time-to-degree and excess credits. Design elements include clear guidelines for students to earn credentials and to further their education or career employment, mapped so course sequences and postcompletion choices are transparent; faster and better on-ramps to college-level learning for underprepared students; strong, ongoing guidance and mentoring on academic and career decision-making; and technology-assisted advising that keeps students on track to completion. Many of these reforms also have implications for greater efficiency in college and university operations, particularly when measured in terms of cost per graduate.
Work toward a new national understanding of and approach to student transfer undergirded by an openness to evaluating, recognizing, and applying college-level learning that takes place at multiple institutions through various models. One-third of college students change institutions at least once, and about half of public university graduates began their studies in community colleges. But many lose credits, do not have their credits accepted, or even drop out along the way, especially students from underrepresented populations. This obligates both public and private colleges and universities as well as state policy-makers to work collaboratively to align learning programs and expectations across institutions and sectors, including implementing a transferable general education core, defined transfer pathway maps within popular disciplines, and transfer-focused advising systems that help students anticipate what it will take for them to transfer without losing momentum in their chosen field. Beyond this, a growing number of providers that are not colleges or universities offer pieces of educational experiences that are comparable to college-level learning. New efforts and strategies are thus required to measure and afford recognition to college-level learning that takes place outside the bounds of traditional and familiar college offerings.
Employer partnerships with colleges and universities play an important part in improving college completion rates and helping students understand the relevance of their education to future employment, develop important workplace skills, and explore potential career pathways. Such partnerships—which include internships and co-op programs, mentoring, and research opportunities—also often include curricular consultations to help ensure students are prepared with the knowledge and skills needed for the workforce. New models in which colleges collaborate with businesses and high schools to create curricular pathways and provide professional mentoring and workplace internships to students especially show great promise.
Federal and state government leadership should enact comprehensive and coordinated strategies to make college completion a top national and state priority. Both state and federal governments should use discretionary funds to make competitive grants that encourage evidence-based approaches to improving completion, including promoting informed program choices, limiting excess credits, reducing developmental coursework, and redesigning curricula to postcompletion success:
State leaders should determine their state’s numerical educational attainment goals, communicate and promote these objectives to their residents, and coordinate with colleges and universities and other public and private entities to achieve these goals. More specifically, states can help set meaningful stretch goals for increasing college completion rates; track improvement by population subgroup by utilizing state longitudinal data systems; and support campuses through targeted institutional allocations and student financial aid.
The federal government should build a student unit record data system—removing identifying information—to understand institutional, state, and national trends on college outcomes.
Colleges and universities should provide all college-going students and their families with easy access to accurate and relevant information to inform their college choices, including the actual costs of the academic program to student and family, the likelihood of completing the program, and the prospects for employment or further education after graduation. Given the high sticker cost of college and the difficulty of choosing among myriad possible institutions, programs, and credentials, better information must be coupled with active guidance and support that is personalized and technology-assisted in order to facilitate decision-making and keep students on track, particularly for first-generation students and others with little experience of both college and careers.
Colleges and universities have the responsibility to advance the cause of better precollege education. The most fundamental way every college and university can help improve P-12 education is to ensure that its own students receive a high-quality education so that graduates who seek a teaching career will have a strong understanding of the subject matter they wish to teach. What a particular college can do depends on its circumstances. Many work directly with teachers and administrations in their local communities to clarify expectations and smooth pathways, create pipeline programs that prepare elementary and high school students for college, and engage in dual-enrollment programs and early college initiatives—all of which can improve college readiness, reduce the need for remediation, and increase college persistence and completion. Some universities have schools of education whose students are a big part of the region’s teaching force, and these institutions need to ensure that their students are well equipped for the work they will take up. The wealthiest and most-selective schools can invest in actively recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds throughout the nation and can help neighboring communities to advance opportunities for all college-going youth.