Even before U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced at the National Governors Association meeting on July 13, 2012, that college completion rates had improved, the response in the media was characteristically and sadly, negative. As this C-SPAN video of the event demonstrates, there are reasonable questions to be asked and there is always room for improvement; however, the knee-jerk tendency to criticize successes in higher education is unwarranted.
Criticism on Autopilot
The first instance of automatic criticism I remember seeing followed Joy Rosmovits’s article in The Huffington Post entitled: “Arne Duncan To Report College Completion Rates Rise By Half A Percentage Point,” (12 July, 2012). Rosmovits provided a balanced overview of what Duncan would share: a national college completion rate improvement from 38.8 percent in 2009 to 39.3% in 2010 for adults between the ages of 24 and 34 (12 July, 2012). She explained that this translates to 100,000 more college graduates and added that “these percentages of degree holders varied dramatically across states, ranging from 28.4 percent in Nevada to 68.8 percent in Washington, D.C” (Rosmovits, J. 12 July, 2012).
Rosmovits also reasonably placed the improvement within a larger, difficult reality. Although the Obama administration is attempting to address the fall of the U.S. graduation rate from first-place among nations to 16th, it is hampered by decreased educational budgets, the difficult economic situation, rising tuition rates that are rapidly making college unaffordable to many, and other related issues.
Comments on Rosmovits’s post range from personal attacks, to jabs at the “half-percent,” to education’s alleged failure as the panacea for all socio-political ills, and other such complaints. It would have been nice to see at least one person comment on the improvement (12 July, 2012).
As an educator, I am thrilled that 100,000 more students graduated within the 24-34 age group from 2009-2010.
There is an often quoted Chinese proverb that “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.” Let’s celebrate that in terms of college completion rates, we’ve taken that first step between 2009 and 2010.
Certainly, the range of college degree completion from 28.4% in one state to 68.8% in another indicates that we can do better (Rosmovits, J., 12 July, 2012). We should be looking more to what Washington, D.C., has done to reach a near 70% college completion rate, while also learning from what has not been working in states like Nevada. In fact, some of the regional differences were discussed during the National Governors Association Meeting on July 13th.
However, it can not be discounted that according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Completion Rates, in most states, about one-half or more of the residents are graduating from college if the completion rate data is extended, for instance, to six years for a bachelor’s degree instead of four. It should not be a surprise given the economic context Rosmovits summarized, that students are progressing more slowly through programs. This is to be expected as students are more wary of going into debt with student loans, juggling jobs and families, and handling other such responsibilities. Students who complete a degree in six years instead of four are still successful and are still to be congratulated on their achievement.
It’s also important to realize that the college completion statistic Duncan reported reflects improvement between 2009 and 2010. Many states and schools have been taking action to improve in areas like college-readiness, affordability, school-to-work initiatives, and other such enterprises, all with a goal of solving some of the key issues facing education, including the improvement of college completion rates. Here are some examples I reported via my blog last April:
• C. L. Max Nikias & William G. Tierney provided excellent commentary in Education Week including three solutions on how to bridge the historical gap between secondary and postsecondary institutions in order to improve the completion rates of students at both levels.
• As an excellent example of regional cooperation, Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University have agreed to expand their policy of transferring credits between the two schools in order to improve the completion rates of students in the area.
• The American Association of State Colleges and Universities reported that an increasing number of schools are offering a degree in four years or the rest is free programs.
• Henry Kenyon of Government Computer News shared that the use of mobile device applications like games are showing promise as a completion rate solution; one University of Florida course saw completion rates jump from 30% to 90%, for example.
• Texas A & M University in San Antonio is offering a four-year IT degree for under $10,000 by utilizing a dual credit program according to the local ABC News affiliate.
• Natasha Lindstrom of the Daily Press explained how one community in California is applying prevention and intervention techniques to smooth the process from high school to college degree and career.
• Dell’s Predictive Analytics-Based Decision Support System, which is showing great success at analyzing the chances for student completion as early as the 5th grade, is being increasingly used by schools. This is just one example of how technology may be helpful in improving college completion rates, as students’ needs may be met early on so that they are better prepared for postsecondary education.
With programs such as these in place, we should be seeing an increase in college completion rates at hopefully a larger percentage in the near future.
Critics of education and ongoing reviews of the best practices that lead toward improving our schools and higher education are beneficial. Pruning what does not work so that what does work toward improving the completion rates of college students should be a shared goal in our nation if we are going to get the successes we desire in terms of education. I predict we’ll see larger percentages of improvement as results become available for 2011 and beyond.
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