A Commitment to Attainment at Ohio State

Syllabification: (at·tain·ment)
Pronunciation: /əˈtānmənt/
the action or fact of achieving a goal toward which one has worked

In higher education, the term attainment is often associated with degree completion. When discussing attainment, several other terms also often rise in the conversation: completion rate, persistence, retention, affordability, and time-to-degree. None of these related issues can be ignored if progress toward increased degree completion rates are to be achieved.

There has recently been increased attention focused on the issues related to attainment, and a National Commission on Higher Education Attainment was created in 2011, with participation from the American Council on Education (ACE), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (A۰P۰L۰U), and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). The Commission was chaired by OSU’s former president, E. Gordon Gee. After meeting from October in 2011 until late in 2012, the Commission released a report in January, 2013.


The report credited universities for the efforts to increase attainment, but also noted that much more could be done. According to a letter from the Commisssion announcing the report:

“We need to do more … We believe every institution must pay as much attention to the number of degrees it grants—completion—as it does to success in admissions and recruitment. It is now time for all colleges and universities to marshal the resources needed to make completion our strategic priority.”

Among the strategies called for by the commission were: “…clearly and unambiguously assigning responsibility to specific senior administrators for improving retention and graduation rates; considering expanded use of assessments that measure learning acquired outside the traditional classroom; improving remedial services; pinpointing weaknesses in preparation; and harnessing information technology to identify at-risk students.”

Ohio State has a commitment to the goals expressed in the national conversation around attainment and to the challenges posed in the Commission report. The University has for many years developed programs with this in mind (e.g., FYE, the Young Scholars Program, STEP, Learning Communities, the Scholars Program, as well as many related support services across campus.) The Office of Undergraduate Education, along with others on our campus, have an opportunity (and obligation) to advocate for the benefits of post-secondary education, and to participate in the partnership between educational institutions (including P-12, community colleges, and other public and private four year institutions), business and policymakers as we strive to achieve the national and statewide goals of increasing the number of college graduates.

Ohio State has been working with other parties in the region toward a “Central Ohio Compact”, which came out of a Regional Summit on College Access and Success that I and other OSU representatives attended. This summit brought together P-12 leaders, two year and four year institutions, business and community organizations, and educational service providers to discuss how we might achieve the “Big Goal” of 60% of Americans with a college certificate or degree by 2025. The Compact states four strategic principles that will help achieve this goal: aspiration and access; alignment and academic preparation; pathways for adult learners; and affordability. All of these goals are in alignment with those stated in the national conversations of attainment.

OSU has agreed to work with the Board of Regents on a grant to look at the efficacy of what is called “reverse transfer”. This program, called “Credit When it is Due” allows students that have transferred to a four year institution before completing requirements for their Associate degree at a two year school to transfer the appropriate credits back to the two year school and receive the Associates diploma.

Several of us in the Office of Academic Affairs are working on other issues related to attainment, specifically: dual enrollment; institutional partnerships related to early college and college access; working to identify and meet the needs of students arriving with large numbers of pre-college credits, including engaging advising staff, to assure timely graduation; participation in discussions at the state level regarding the “completion agenda”; working with the Board of Regents and the Chamber of Commerce and other groups on internship opportunities for undergraduates; and the role of high impact practices as a way of engaging students and raising retention rates, and reducing time-to-degree.

I have been working closely with our new Military and Veterans Services Office on issues related to military experience credit, CLEP exam credit assignment, and student engagement and retention. We have participated in Board of Regents discussions that would expand the use of examination and experiential credit assignment for military and veteran students, as well as other prior learning assessment strategies for all students.

Affordability is one of the barriers to attainment. Problems of reduced state and local support, rising tuition, reduced financial aid, and tightening credit status for students and families has created a crisis for higher education, including Ohio State. We are working with the Board of Regents to define three year pathways to certain degrees, we are expanding our distance learning opportunities, we are enhancing our advising training and expertise, and we are participating in discussions with partner institutions around college readiness, all with a goal of minimizing the impact caused by affordability. We are starting conversations with businesses around providing employee opportunities to complete a degree, encouraging tuition reimbursement policies, flexible schedules, the use of distance courses and onsite classes, and providing internships for our students.

I attended the Forum on the Future of Higher Education in Aspen the past several years, discussing the general topics of attainment and affordability, and while there participated in a discussion with 17 of our peer institutions related to the establishment of a “Flagship Universities Network” to advance discussions and potential partnerships related to attainment, among other issues. Ohio State has signed a letter of participation intent with this Network. We will work through and with this group, with the various affiliated organizations focused on attainment, including the Lumina Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Complete College America, the National Governors Association, the College Board and the Brookings Institution.

We will continue to work with our campus partners, specifically ODI, Undergraduate Admissions and FYE, Economic Access, and others in our quest to achieve the “Big Goal” while meeting the needs of special groups, particularly first generation, low-income, and diversity students, as well as adult learners and other non-traditional students from all over the world.

The Changing Face of Higher Education

Higher education is undergoing considerable scrutiny lately, and the promise is that this scrutiny will continue, and more than likely increase in intensity. Several recent authors have written books (some that have generated considerable controversy) making a case for the need to change the way we conduct ourselves as institutions devoted to educating our citizens.

One book summarized a study that our students were “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose” and “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over two and four years in school (1); one advocated that perhaps the traditional college of today could be refocused, as the “disruptive innovation” of online learning forces us to reevaluate the structure of the university today (2); another questions the goal of a college degree for all, stating  “the most fundamental reform that should be made is abandoning the idea that a four-year college education is the appropriate or even necessary choice for everyone” (3); the author of one of the more recent publications (who signs on to the disruptive innovation premise, and the online education solution) states “More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises.” (4)

Generally, these books have been a bit unsatisfying, as they tend to pigeonhole the problems, claiming that much of the issue is that “Higher Education” is inflexible and unwilling to change. Although the authors are correct in proclaiming that we need some immediate focus on the contributing issues, I think that the problems are much more diverse, and the causes much more expansive than these authors have stated, often naively, IMHO. In fact, the books are a good read, and I would never advocate that we should dismiss them or their message. We are facing significant issues in higher ed, and we need to face these issues head-on; these authors have presented some compelling data and arguments.

A 2006 study, from the Council of Higher Education Management Associations (CHEMA), identified the forces of change that are having an influence on higher education. The study queried thought leaders in the area, and listed the drivers (summarized below) that were seen by the leaders as most influential (with percentage responses):

Top Change Drivers in Higher Education

  • Insufficient financial resources    60.5
  • Technological change    32.6
  • Changing student demographics    23.7
  • Aging and expanding plant    21.1
  • The demand to demonstrate outcomes    20.5
  • Rising consumer expectations    18.9
  • Increased regulation    17.4
  • Expectation of 24X7 service    16.3
  • Rising student expectations    15.3
  • Global marketplace    14.7
  • Increased competition    14.2
  • Workforce demographics    12.6
  • Pressure to reduce tuition    8.4
  • Privatization    6.3
  • Decline in enrollment    3.7
  • Managing IP rights    2.6
  • Lack of skilled workforce    2.1
  • Declining student retention    1.6

Although, depending on the university or college, and the students who attend these schools, one could conclude that these drivers might be more or less significant. Also, new innovations, such as MOOCs, could change the order of importance of the responses. Having said that, I do believe that they are all relevant contributors to the situations that we are facing.

We are planning to convene some of the best thinkers in our institution to address the changing face of higher education, whether the issues are the result of the emphasis from some of these drivers (or others), or whether they are as the authors of many recent books have portrayed. If any of you out there have ideas sat to what are areas we should focus on, or your own ideas of how higher education needs to change, I’d appreciate your comments.


1. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

2. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

3. Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education, by Dr. William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

4. College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, by Jeffrey J. Selingo

NACUBO: The Future of Higher Education: A View from CHEMA