In the News

Three Success Stories Point to a “Bigger Future” for Students – and Higher Ed

Roger W. Ferguson

As college students across America resume their studies after the winter break, we’re again reminded of one of the key challenges of our time: making higher education more affordable. It’s a tough one, so hats off to institutions like Cincinnati State Technical and Community College for coming up with innovative ways to ease the financial burden on students – and increase the odds that they will stay in school and graduate.

Not only does the college’s CState Accelerate program provide students with tuition assistance and vouchers to buy textbooks, it also offers financial incentives like grocery and gas cards to help them make ends meet. Combined with tutoring and academic coaching services and an emphasis on student accountability, the program helps students graduate with an associate’s degree within a three-year time frame. Students in the program graduate at nearly double the rate of their peers.

Cincinnati State’s efforts are highlighted in a new video series created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The videos showcase institutions that are successfully addressing the three “national priorities” identified by the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education (which I co-chair) as key to the continued success of our undergraduate higher education system: 1. Strengthen the student educational experience; 2. Increase college completion rates and reduce inequities; and 3. Control costs and increase affordability. The priorities are aimed at ensuring that students realize the significant benefits of higher education in a timely manner without having to take on onerous debt, which can keep them from making the sound saving and investment decisions that result in a lifetime of financial wellness.

Other success stories featured in the videos include:

  • Florida State University, whose 72 percent four-year graduation rate (up from 49 percent in 2005) is the highest in the state – and among the highest in the entire nation. To thoroughly understand the obstacles students face in completing their degrees the University employ a data-driven approach to guide it in designing solutions. FSU also has a dedicated taskforce of administrators from across campus that meets every two weeks to discuss its strategic investments in areas essential to helping students succeed, such as tutoring and academic advising and coaching.
  • Cornell University, which launched a special initiative to encourage the use of “active learning” techniques and other evidence-based teaching practices in its classrooms. Cornell supports departments in redesigning their undergraduate courses in order to improve student-learning outcomes and to foster positive and inclusive learning experiences. 

The Academy hopes that sharing these institutions’ innovative, successful, and replicable programs will inspire other colleges and universities to take action. In addition to the videos, which were funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the TIAA Institute, the Academy also devoted the Fall 2019 edition of its journal, Dædalus, to the theme of “Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience.” The issue features 12 essays with topics ranging from online learning and occupational skills to racism and civic learning, and it was edited by Mike McPherson, my commission co-chair and former president of Macalester College and the Spencer Foundation, and Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute.

Addressing the priorities the Academy has outlined has profound implications for our nation. “The success of our democracy and our economy depends on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the challenge of providing students with the education they need at a cost they can afford,” said David Oxtoby, the Academy’s president and former president of Pomona College. “The Academy is committed to reaching the broadest range of institutions and audiences possible with both the challenges and solutions.”

Beyond the broader national implications, programs like those highlighted in the videos can make a life-changing difference for students and their families. Consider the story of Jamela Holley, a student featured in the Cincinnati State video. The mother of a young daughter, she had enrolled in the college and then decided to “take a break” from her studies. When academic coaches reached out to her and encouraged her to re-enroll, and then helped her schedule classes and offered their ongoing support, it motivated her to finish her degree.

“Without CState Accelerate, I probably would have put my dreams on hold,” she said, “working at a minimum-wage job and not even seeing a bigger picture, a bigger future for me.”

At a time of great demographic, technological, and economic change, we must commit to investing in strengthening undergraduate education to ensure that students like Jamela are educated within a reasonable amount of time and at manageable expense. The Academy’s video series is a great way to showcase innovative programs that are addressing this challenge, and in the process creating a “bigger future” for their students – and for our society as a whole.

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson