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Colleges Beginning to Take on Student Completion Rates

Published:  June 28, 2011

With the United States slipping in international rankings of college degree attainment, policymakers and administrators of institutions of higher education (IHEs) have begun to focus on college completion and student retention—not just student access. To that effect, a new College Board report examines the ongoing efforts by colleges to improve student retention, and evaluates the efficacy of several alternative solutions in use around the country. The report dovetails with President Obama’s own calls for colleges to boost completion rates among their students.

The report, How Four-Year Colleges and Universities Organize Themselves to Promote Student Persistence: the Emerging National Picture, says colleges and universities have not put forward the effort necessary to increase currently-stagnant college completion rates in their efforts to support students’ academic success. Although schools are beginning to address the issue, their attempts have been plagued with problems.

Specifically, the report cites several major setbacks: Schools aren’t giving student retention the priority it needs; the internal analyses that colleges conduct are insufficient; and students, even those who receive early intervention contacts from their colleges to promote their academic achievement, do not receive follow-up contacts from counselors, advisors, or other faculty.

IHEs may soon find good reason to step up their outreach efforts, though. And the authors of the report agree, stating that the “federal and state focus on retention and graduation rates will pressure institutions to improve” in the coming years.

For example, President Obama has proposed a new series of incentives that—if enacted—would reward schools that have adopted proven methods of increasing student completion rates. The president’s 2012 budget request includes several new incentive programs to support schools with increasing college completion rates.

The central proposal would provide $123 million for a “First in the World” competition. Modeled on the Investing in Innovation (i3) competition for K-12 education, it would funnel money from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) to both results-based programs and new, innovative proposals with college access, completion, and/or institutional productivity as their central goals. Currently, FIPSE includes a competitive grant program for innovative reforms to higher education. While $27 million was available for new awards in 2010, no new awards will be made in 2011 due to funding decreases.  In recent years, Congress has also used FIPSE to provide earmarks for member-requested projects for IHEs; although these earmarks totaled $101 million in 2010, no funds were provided for earmarks in 2011.

The First in the World competition would also be shored up by another program: College Completion Incentive Grants. The grants are funded with $50 million in 2012 through the proposed Pell Grant Protection Act contained in the president’s 2012 budget request. States would be eligible to receive grants for demonstrating their successful efforts to reform higher education systems and improve completion rates, close achievement gaps, and expand academic preparation efforts by coordinating high school graduation requirements with colleges’ entry-level standards. These priorities are very similar to those detailed in the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reforming ESEA.

To support states as they take on the lofty challenges facing them, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to U.S. governors in March 2011, offering suggestions to improve graduation rates. The College Completion Tool Kit defines seven proposals states can consider to raise completion statistics. And the federal government is not alone in pushing the new project; the National Governors Association has designed its own Complete to Compete initiative to compile the ideas and experiences of and make recommendations to state executives from around the country.

College retention has taken the spotlight in recent years, both for the higher education institutions serving students and for federal and state policymakers looking to improve global competitiveness through educational achievement. With pots of money like the ones created in the president’s 2012 budget, and new evidence and guidance such as that in the recently-released College Board report, there may now be enough at stake to persuade schools to redirect their priorities to those students most at risk of slipping through the cracks.

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