Starting and Completing College Is Important

Posted by Morley Winograd on September 28, 2017 at 10:15 AM

A collaborative post by Morley Winograd, Ted Kahn, Harris Miller, and David Wolf


America’s system of higher education is not meeting the needs of its students or our economy in terms of economic opportunity and growth. Those of us who believe ardently in its power to advance individuals, families and society want all aspects of the system, from enrollment to graduation, to work better.

Even though the Campaign for Free College Tuition is focused on eliminating financial barriers to college access for all families, we fully support other efforts to increase completion rates for students who do enroll. More of the increased numbers of students that free college tuition generates need to complete their higher education experience for such programs to provide the expected benefits to them and to society.

As more and more states and localities adopt free college tuition, they and their taxpayers will expect positive student outcomes. When data on completion rates are made public (which is increasingly the case), there is wide-spread dissatisfaction, as well there should be, with this aspect of our higher education system. It is a shock to most citizens that less than half of community college students complete their educational goals, and many state colleges’ six-year graduation rates for four-year degree institutions are only a little over 50%. Providing more students free tuition without fixing these problems will inevitably undermine support for the concept. 

CFTC has developed relationships with key political leaders at state and community levels to encourage the elimination of tuition as an obstacle to entry into higher education. The results have been extraordinary, with ten states and over 100 localities now providing some form of free college tuition. All our conversations inevitably include the issue of student completion as well because both taxpayers and voters expect that an increase in college enrollment will lead to an increase in the number of graduates.

However, higher education is a very complex enterprise, and for it to serve Americans successfully, three distinct and essentially independent systems must each work well and in harmony: elementary and secondary education must provide proper preparation for students for entry into higher education; state and federal policies must encourage access to higher education for all qualified students; and higher education institutions must provide appropriate academic and career programming and student support services to achieve high rates of completion. While there is some degree of inter-relatedness between these three systems, efforts to improve each require very different expertise, and the focus on changing them must be on very different levers of power.

Efforts to improve current rates of college completion, for instance, must take place primarily at the level of the individual institution. Practices vary significantly; the obstacles to making changes can be many; and the talent to lead these efforts must in some cases be developed. Fortunately, there is now not only a body of research that can provide guidance for institutions seeking to improve, but also a number of organizations that have been providing encouragement and assistance.

Perhaps the most current and comprehensive research compilation is Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, by Thomas Bailey (Harvard University Press, April 2015). While the emphasis in this work is community colleges, much of the findings likely extend throughout higher education. Here are the key takeaways from this and other research on completion:

The factors influencing completion are many. They include:

  • K-12 preparation and communication between the college and feeder high schools,
  • appropriate entry and diagnostic testing,
  • the design of remedial programs and their relationship to credit bearing instruction,
  • the design and sequencing of academic and career/technical coursework,
  • the requirement for individual education plans,
  • appropriate academic and personal counseling, 
  • the regular monitoring of student progress against educational plans, financial aid, tutoring and mentor programs,
  • transfer relationships with other higher education institutions. 

Research has also identified eight intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies that help determine if a student will persist in their higher education efforts—and how low-cost interventions can encourage their development (see infographic below). Each of these components must work together if an institution is intent on improving completion. This requires not only changes in specific institutional policies and practices, but the retraining of faculty and staff.

Reordering priorities to make these changes requires informed, committed, and bold leadership. Locating and supporting this leadership is sometimes difficult because colleges and universities are notorious for their resistance to change, especially since improving completion rates inevitably involves altering the way budgets are designed and increasing institutional funding. And too often, the incentives for making such changes don’t exist. Public institutions primarily receive government funding based almost exclusively on how many students they enroll, not on how many they graduate.

As a result, moving institutions to change requires persistence and support. Several organizations at the national level have demonstrated their effectiveness and staying power in providing this kind of institutional assistance. The Lumina Foundation has helped focus the nation on their goal of having 60% of Americans hold a higher education certificate or degree by 2025; Complete College America has been particularly concerned about improving remediation and math performance; and Achieve the Dream offers a three year, comprehensive program for institutional change at the community college level designed to improve graduation rates.

Making tuition free can also contribute to increasing completion rates. Studies have shown that the pressure to find the money to pay for tuition and textbooks can cause students to get off track from their original higher education plan at any stage of the process. Still, money alone is not the answer to solving our graduation rate challenges. We continue to encourage state policy makers, as they design their own free college tuition initiative, to make sure students get the support they need from their public higher education institutions to make completion, not just enrollment, a reality for millions of students.

We can't do this alone!

Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.

We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.

If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.