Seeing the Whole Elephant

Thinking issues through is hard. It is especially difficult – and all the more necessary – when conclusions do not jibe, when perspectives differ, and when priorities contrast. Two recent reports have catalyzed my thinking about student success. While they do not provide all the answers, they do move the conversation in a good direction. They also help with a bigger project. I believe that we are getting closer to the point in higher education when it is becoming all the more important that we step back, be extremely mindful of the complexities of what we do, and reframe some basic assumptions when it comes to the higher education “value proposition.”

In Elevating College Completion, Frederick M. Hesse and Lanae Erickson from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, present several articles on college completion. Their underlying message is that this is a bipartisan issue important to all Americans and that colleges, in many ways, are not doing their job. In Balancing Work and Learning: Implications for Low-Income Students, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce give us a broad investigation on college students and their working through college. The findings are clear: what college students do to make money while being students has a significant impact on their success. Considered together, along with other things we know about college completion, the reports give us a better understanding of what colleges and college education can and cannot do – and for which students.

Elevating College Completion reminds us that “only about half of students who begin college actually complete their degree.” Contributors note the poor ways in which student performance data is tracked. There is wide variation in completion rates for different kinds of students at different kinds of institutions. On average, four-year institutions have higher graduation rates than two-year institutions. Research universities have higher graduation rates than colleges. Wealthier students, who are often whiter students, complete at higher rates than students of color. All of this aligns with generalized levels of family support, quality of K-12 education, and familiarity with higher education. The bottom line, as we know, is that the more likely an institution of higher education can be selective about the students it enrolls, the greater the institution’s graduation rate. Despite these facts, we tend to treat completion as an across the board higher education problem. After all, we tend to treat most institutions of higher education in similar ways.

The report also contains a look at the challenges of different incentivization policies, stressing that there is no silver bullet that increases completion for all students. Budgeting systems that reward X or Y are often gamed by institutions. Unintended consequences when it comes to funding is rampant. Money is a consistently important factor across sectors. The more funding that institutions have, the greater the likelihood that their students graduate. Open access institutions, like community colleges, face more challenges than better funded flagship institutions. Students who attend open access institutions tend to have less money and be in more need of support services than students at better funded institutions. This should all be familiar to many within academia.

It is important to remember, though, that money does not solve everything. The report notes another factor that many of us who work in higher education know: there are significant variations in graduation rates when comparing similar kinds of institutions. Some colleges and universities seem to be able to do a better job getting students across the finish line than others. It is difficult to be precise about this. What works for one student may not work for another – just like in a classroom. However, we all aware that there are better practices. Increasing college completion rates is a source of ongoing work and effort – and all institutions do not pursue it with the same level of skill, commitment or effectiveness.

The Georgetown report looks at students across all of higher education. About 14 million are working learners, and of these, 6 million (43%) are low-income students. Interestingly, approximately 42% of all students in higher education are in community colleges. The low-income working learners are disproportionately Black (18%) and Latino (25%), women (58%), and first-generation college-goers (47%). In contrast, higher-income working learners tend to be White (73%). Black and Latino students are over-represented in community colleges, too, as are first generation students. Parallels continue: low-income students who are working tend to enroll in certificate programs, and in two-year public or for-profit colleges. Higher income students tend to enroll in four year colleges and are more likely to attend selective institutions. In fact, the data shows that low-income working learners are less likely to graduate with any credential – regardless of their academic performance. It is much harder for students who do not have money, and are working through college, to complete.

It’s been my experience in decades of work in higher education is that most students have really good reasons for their academic decisions. They stay in college if they believe that it is worthwhile. They stop college if life gets in the way or if they do not find it meeting their expectations. The money available to student makes a tremendous difference in how they think about their education and how they pursue it.

All of these factors are taking place in a period of rising income equality in the United States. All of these factors are taking place in a period of increasing college costs and increasing student debt.

I’ll leave you with a number of working hypotheses that I am mulling over as suggestions as we think about student success.

  • Every college can do more and better when it comes to college graduation rates.
  • The overall higher education “market” – which students tend to enroll at which institutions – does not necessarily work to improve graduation rates. In fact, it may exacerbate the problem.
  • Improving student completion rates beyond what any individual college can do will require better data and student tracking.
  • Improving student completion rates beyond what any individual college can do will require us to think about different approaches for different kinds of institutions and different kinds of students. One size does not fit all.
  • More and better data and understanding of on-ramps to higher education (socioeconomic status, academic preparation, support systems) makes a tremendous difference to student success.
  • More and better data and understanding of off-ramps from higher education (what sort of jobs and careers are possible, what kind socioeconomic status can be obtained through an education, what sort of support systems are in place) makes a tremendous difference as to whether students complete.

We have come a long way in higher education, increasing access to students and seeing gains in student success. Continuing that work is paramount. Equally important is locating our local efforts within programs, colleges, areas and the broader educational ecosystem. There is much more work to be done.

David Potash

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