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Tracking Early Progress Could Boost College Completion

If the country is going to solve the problem of college completion, it only makes sense that we have to know where students are struggling along the way.

Looking at milestones and indicators of success as students progress through postsecondary education can help state policy makers and institutions be more responsive in providing support, according to a new report by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based non-profit that studies education and workforce issues.

The report, Taking the Next Step: The Promise of Intermediate Measures For Meeting Postsecondary Completion Goals, says what is needed are good comparative data on students' basic skills and how they are doing with course completion, especially the gateway courses.

"There has been a lot of interest in what kinds of intermediate measures can give you a better sense of how students are doing and where they are falling and falling out and what you can do about that," says Richard Kazis, senior vice president at JFF. This is an effort to identify those points, which can help with state policy, institutional improvement and coordination across colleges.

Solid indicators of success include completing 20 credits in a certain period, such as a year, and completing summer credits, says Jeremy Offenstein, a research specialist with the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, California State University, Sacramento, and co-author of the report. Also, making it through the first college level math and English courses is a good sign.

Some colleges are collecting this information, but not all—and many are not using it a coordinated way. Many schools and systems don't have the resources to analyze the information that can translate the trends into policies that would help provide student support, says Offenstein.

As postsecondary institutions begin to track intermediate steps towards success, it could result in useful information to K-12 systems about college readiness, adds Offenstein. By determining the number of students who need developmental education, it could help bridge the disconnect between high schools and colleges to potentially provide earlier assessment and intervention.

As the intermediate measures identify problems, the next step is for institutions to come up with strategies to fix them, such as more advising, or bringing remediation into the credit program rather than have it be sequential, says Kazis. Other solutions could be early intervention programs, tutoring, or additional academic assistance, the report suggests.

JFF's goal is to encourage common practices and definitions, as well as more thoughtful and effective uses of these data for institutional improvement, policy reform, performance funding, and accountability purposes. "The timing is right for this paper," says Kazis. "There is greatly increased interest at the state and institutional level to think more in terms of numerical goals and analysis of loss points. ... We are trying to speak more like one voice on these issues and metrics rather than having the impact dissipate by having a lot of different approaches to basically the same challenge."

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