States Focusing on College Success, not just Enrollment

E-newsletter Issue #106 | January 17, 2013

Policymakers and educators say too many students are leaving colleges or universities without a degree and it’s hurting the future economic competitiveness of the country.

“Just half of students who start a four-year bachelor’s degree program finish in six years,” said Alison Griffin, a consultant at HCM Strategists and one of the speakers on CSG’s December webinar, “Increasing Academic Success in Postsecondary Education.” “Fewer than three out of 10 students starting community college graduate with associate degrees in three years. … Once first in the world, America now ranks 10th in the percentage of young adults with a college degree.”

Griffin said the causes of the problem include “inadequate academic preparation, poorly designed and delivered remediation, broken credit transfer policies, confusing financial aid policies and really, a (higher education) culture that rewards enrollment rather than completion.”

Another problem facing today’s college students is what Griffin called credit creep.

“For many years, in credit terms, the standard bachelor’s degree was 120 hours and for an associate degree, 60 hours,” she said. “In 1972, a high school graduate completed a degree with an average of 130 credits in a little over four years. When the class of 1992 entered college, the total had risen to 138 credits, or well over four and a half years. … Those statistics continue to go up.”

Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, said he and his staff crisscrossed the state in 2010 to figure out what policies and practices would help improve the number of students graduating with a meaningful degree or credential. 

Ralls said the problems in North Carolina were fairly typical. Many of the students entering community colleges in the state were coming through the GED program, which is part of the community college system. After receiving their GED, most of those students were entering developmental—or remedial—classes in college. Ralls said the community college system created a program that combines the technical skills of the GED program along with the developmental skills students need to go straight into credit-bearing classes in college.

Ralls said the community college system established a mentoring program for African-American men at 46 colleges, since statistics showed those students had a particularly hard time completing a degree or credential. State leaders also are re-evaluating the articulation agreement between the community college system and universities to ensure students do not have to repeat courses.

Ralls said while the state has a huge amount of data on students, he began realizing that the community college system wasn’t  capturing the right data and when they had it, it wasn’t being used.

“While we had a lot of data and we were doing lots of reports, our analysis was very weak,” he said. “We’re restructuring our data integrity, making sure it’s consistent and we’re getting the right data. “

Washington state Rep. Larry Seaquist said his state may be seen as the high-tech mecca of the country, but its higher education system hasn’t been performing as well as one might expect.

“We’re an undereducated state,” Seaquist said. “We have 40.9 percent of our 25-year-olds (with a) two- or four-year degree and it’s going down. … We’ve got employers asking for twice as many grads as we are able to produce. We’re educating, we’re delivering, but we’re not delivering the numbers we need to.”

That’s why in 2007, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges launched the Student Achievement Initiative, a performance-funding system. A small amount of funding is allotted to schools based on how well they do on measures that show student progress toward graduation, such as the number of students completing 15 hours.

Performance metrics for four-year universities were established by legislation in 2011. Those metrics include such things as transfer rates, degrees awarded, course completions and success beyond remedial education.

Seaquist said educators often want to wait for new buildings or funding for more faculty before they begin a massive push to increase enrollment. He thinks now is the time to act.

“Let’s stuff every possible student through our system that we can,” he said. “We’re acting without waiting to build new buildings. Let’s hire the faculty, … put the pedal to the metal and see what we can do.”

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