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College Policy Focus Moves Over Time From Access to Completion

The college conversation largely has shifted from access to completion in the past five years. Most students realize they need to get some kind of credential or degree to be able to compete in today's economy. But policymakers emphasize it's not just about getting into college, it's about getting through.

A recent dip into EdWeek's vast archives was a reminder of the expansion of college enrollment, efforts to improve completion rates, and advances made in tracking student success.

Increasingly, students are leaving high school with a growing enthusiasm about the prospect of college. Last fall, we reported college-going rates continued to rise, yet completion dropped slightly. As the college-age population declined nearly 30 years ago, there was concern about a drop in enrollment. But in 1987, there was a surprise surge in freshmen on many campuses. Since 1990, there has been nearly a 50 percent increase in total undergraduate enrollment with the latest federal figures showing nearly 18 million students enrolled.

Still, completion rates have been stubbornly stagnant and long a concern of policymakers.

In the late 1990s, Educational Testing Service, or ETS, reported low- and worsening college-graduation rates. The Education Trust highlighted the troubling college-completion rates for low-income and minority students about six years ago. Soon after, states began to pass new laws to encourage college completion.

Today about 59 percent of full-time students seeking a bachelor's degree finished at that same institution within six years and 30 percent of students earned an associate degree within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

However, the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) only includes students who are first-time, full-time freshman who start and finish at one institution. As better information became available, EdWeek has provided a clearer picture of the completion landscape.

Three years ago, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published the outcomes  of students who transferred and attended more than one college before earning a degree. 

In its report last December, the center found nearly one-quarter of all students finish at a school other than where they started.  For students who remained full-time throughout their college career, it showed 77 percent earned a bachelor's degree within six years. That's a much more promising figure than the 59 percent reported using IPED data, which looks at the full-time status of freshmen only in the first semester and considers students who leave an institution as a drop out.

"It's been a huge opening of a window to what's really going on," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the center, in a phone interview. The more encompassing data makes college look like a better investment, yet Shapiro notes that higher education officials likely will not rest until completion rates are closer to 90 percent. "This does not suggest anybody should be satisfied," he said.

Several nonprofits have focused on the college-completion agenda in recent years, helping elevate the issue.

When Complete College America launched in 2009, there were 17 states that initially joined the advocacy campaign and committed to increasing graduation rates. Now 33 states and the District of Columbia are part of the Indianapolis-based organization that has lobbied for new state policies and college reforms to improve college completion.

By publishing completion rates in its annual report, CCA President Stan Jones says awareness to the problem has grown and there is a recognition that the structure of the system has to change. "People are more willing to talk about graduation rates and are less defensive," said Jones.

Calling college completion in four years a "myth" in its report last year, CCA is pushing states to adopt "game changer" policies aimed at reforming higher education practices.

Among its proposals is the use of statewide performance-based funding for colleges, which began in Ohio and Indiana five years ago and since expanded to 15 states, with another 12 getting ready to roll it out, according to Jones. CCA is also pushing colleges to adopt co-requisite courses to streamline remedial education, guided pathways to graduation, structured schedules, and incentives for students to take 15 credit hours per semester. Jones said these five practices can make a substantial difference and states will soon have evidence to show the impact.

"Clearly people still believe in access, but access is really only important if there is a reasonable chance of success and we need to emphasize more on the success side," said Jones. "[The college completion agenda] is really going to take hold in the next five years and then be the agenda for a long time."

Library intern Connor Smith contributed research to this story.

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