Why Can’t Higher Education Be Ahead Of The Curve?

The flagship organization of higher education, AAC&U, publishes several themed periodicals. Key among them is Liberal Education. Focused on undergraduate education and liberal learning, the quarterly provides a national forum about teaching, learning, undergraduate issues and leadership.

The Winter 2012 issues of Liberal Education focuses on the “completion agenda.” Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, frames the issue as a “completion and productivity juggernaut” that is ignorant of the true value and worth of education. Students are weak, competencies are weak, and broader awareness is missing, Schneider tells us; colleges and universities, therefore, are failing. She argues that the push for graduation rates may defeat “the entire project of helping American achieve higher levels of knowledge and capability.” 

The theme of misguided policy-makers in the federal government and state and local legislatures – political leaders who are (horrors!) seeking greater graduation rates is more fully developed in Debra Humphreys’ “What’s Wrong with the Completion Agenda – and What We Can Do About It.” In brief, Humphreys’ list of problems include the poor levels of preparation of entering college students, the potential dangers of incentivizing institutions to increase graduation times and rates (possibly by sacrificing quality), the broader societal and economic need for skilled workers with even more complex skills, and the way that completion-only messaging undermines academic values. To combat this Humphreys proposes a “completion plus quality” approach. Gary Rhoades, former AAUP leader, writes in “The Incomplete Completion Agenda” that the completion agenda misses out on quality and is incompatible with ongoing decreases in funding and support.

Further, Scott Evenbeck and Kathy E. Johnson caution that “Students Must Not Become Victims of the Completion Agenda.” The authors acknowledge the value of the completion agenda but caution that learning and quality can be undermined. Dual credit programs can short-change learning, they warn, and if the agenda is followed too closely, significantly less achievement might be the result.

Garrison Walters has a broader view. In “The Completion Agenda and the States” he emphasizes that “it’s not so easy” to improve graduation rates and student learning. State governors and legislatures are pressing public institutions of higher education to do more with less, with some states more successful than others. Walters does not want to see too much optimism, but also notes that “too many academics spend too much time whining about legislators. That’s not only unproductive, it is wrong.”

Walters’ observations hold true – and serve as an important counterpoint to the thrust of the entire issue of Liberal Education. The “completion agenda” is absolutely necessary to the future of higher education in the United States. To make the primary point of engagement with the initiative a criticism is wrong-headed and politically foolish.

Many politicians and policy-makers have faith – perhaps naïve, but it is still present – in the power of a college education to transform a life. They believe in the power of a meritocracy and the effects of a degree on employment opportunities. The White House and the National Conference of State Legislatures are advancing this together; it is a point of agreement that can reach across partisan divides. It makes sense, too; whatever ways in which higher education can provide deeper or more effective learning, first and foremost it has to graduate students.

The nation and our higher education system face tremendous challenges if we are to increase college graduation rates. The College Board has an interactive national map that spells out just how far we have to go. The goal is to have 55% of America’s 25-34 year-olds holding the associate degree or more by 2020. It is not an ambitious stretch; it is a solid and reasonable foundation, necessary but not sufficient, to future success.

The AAC&U’s concerns are another example of the deep reluctance of higher education to advance and support any systems of accountability. That fear is woven throughout much of what takes place in academia and it hampers us at every turn. Without external pressure there would be no systems so that students could transfer college credits easily. We would be without learning outcomes assessment, the public disclosure of graduation and retention rates, and accreditation. Our instincts are small and focused internally; we do not organize ourselves effectively and we consistently miss opportunities. I am tired of reacting to rhetoric. What would a higher-education initiative to raise graduation rates across states look like? That is the real issue – and we will continue to fail until we become willing and able to advance the conversation.

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