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States Pass New Laws to Encourage College Completion

The talk of college completion is turning into action in many state legislatures around the country.

Policymakers are getting serious about making higher education more accountable and encouraging students to progress by passing measures that link funding formulas to performance metrics. Nearly 80 new laws related to college completion have been approved in states so far in 2011, and the range of approaches are chronicled by Boosting College Completion, a two-year initiative by the Education Commission of the States funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The organization's website provides an overview of the action by states and categorizes the measures into the various phases — from studying new funding formulas to establishing and implementing frameworks. It lists efforts affecting completion, transfer and workforce issues.

Some states are easing into changes, such as Nevada, where a committee is being created to consider funding based on course completions and other performance metrics yet to be defined.

In Arkansas, the legislature passed nine college-completion related laws.Over a five-year period, it will phase in outcomes-based funding, which considers how well a college is doing with student retention and transfer rates, number of credentials awarded overall, and number of graduates from under-served populations.

Colorado is directing the commission on higher education to design a master plan to increase the degrees and certificates awarded in a year by 30 percent in a decade to provide support for economic development; renegotiate performance contracts with individual postsecondary institutions; and create a performance-based funding plan that will base 25 percent of institutional funding on student success metrics.

These enactments will become law in the coming months, depending on the state, says Matthew Smith, associate policy analyst for Boosting College Completion.

"You see a lot of legislatures really internalizing the national agenda for college completion and looking at specific targets, in terms of numerical goals for educational goals and workforce outcomes," says Smith. There is action with funding, governance, and moving students through the system more quickly, he says. The vocabulary has changed to focus on promoting effectiveness and improvements in student-centered outcomes, rather than focusing on institution efficiency and cost-cutting, says Smith.

Smith adds this report will be the first of many that the organization plans to release on legislative action relating college completion issues, such as developmental education and dual enrollment, in the coming months.

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