The Completion Agenda

I recently read an intriguing article by Debra Humphries of The Association of American Colleges and Universities, or AAC&U (1) about the national trend to adopt the “Completion Agenda”. This agenda started as a laudable effort, spurred in part by support from the Gates and Lumina Foundations, to address the fact that community colleges in particular were not seeing their students through to the completion of their degrees or certificates – they were focused on attracting students to attend, but not following through with programs that allowed them to finish. The agenda has become a misplaced focus on the part of state and federal officials to use graduation rates alone as a measure of institutional success, beyond the community college world to that of 4-year institutions.

Humphreys observed that this can become a misplaced focus, because in many applications it looks at only the graduation rate as the factor most crucial in assessing an institution’s success. States often connect funding with the graduation rate measure, and national rankings consider graduation rates as one of the most important components of an increased ranking.

The main problem with this is that a focused attention on graduation rates may cause us to look primarily at credit completion rather than the more important point of educational attainment – how fast we get done rather than what we learn in the process. It also ignores many of the underlying causes of lowered graduation rates – college readiness, K12 preparation, an economy that requires more and more work outside of school for many students, a response to perceived employer demands that students be more quickly trained for the workforce, and other important considerations.

Humphreys references the AAC&U statement from The Quality Imperative:  “the quality shortfall is just as urgent as the attainment shortfall”.  An important connection to this statement is that there are many reasons that students are taking longer to complete a degree. As she points out:

There are, in fact, two dimensions to the quality shortfall. First, too many students are making little or no progress on important learning outcomes while in college; second, the increasing complexity of our world is adding to what a well-educated person must know and be able to do. Drawing on the findings from recent research commissioned by AAC&U, Carol Geary Schneider (2010) has noted that “success in today’s workplace requires achievement in at least six new areas of knowledge and skill development, which have been added to the already ambitious learning portfolio required in earlier eras.” Employers themselves are, for instance, asking for greater emphasis on such traditional outcomes as “communications, analytic reasoning, quantitative literacy, broad knowledge of science and society, and field-specific knowledge and skills.” They are also asking for graduates with high levels of “global knowledge and competence; intercultural knowledge and skills; creativity and innovation; teamwork and problem-solving skills in diverse settings; information literacy and fluency; and ethical reasoning and decision making. [Bolded emphasis is mine]

We must pay attention to graduation rates… it is important that our students complete their degree, and it is important that they do so in a reasonable amount of time (for economic reasons, among others.) We must also pay attention to what requirements we are putting in front of students that may require them to stay longer than is necessary. But we must also pay very close attention to the quality of the education (not just training, but education) that these students are receiving. Surely employers want graduates to enter the workforce as quickly as possible, with as little on the job training necessary as possible. But they also want graduates who understand the complexities of society, who can analyze the market and problem-solve, who have an understanding of global pressures and influences, who can work in teams and get along with their co-workers. They want broadly educated individuals, and sometime this broad educational process takes a little longer than the workforce training that our political officials are often focused on.

(1) What’s Wrong with the  Completion Agenda—And What We Can Do About It, Debra Humphreys, Liberal Education, Winter 2012, Vol. 98, No. 1

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