WASHINGTON, D.C. – When it comes to increasing the number of graduates in the United States, college leaders would be wise to invest in re-engaging “near completers”—or those students who would have left college despite only being a few credits shy of a degree.
That was the heart of the message delivered Tuesday at the first National Summit on Near Completion conducted by the D.C.-based Institute for Higher Educational Policy, or IHEP.
Throughout the discussion, held at the National Press Club, speakers repeatedly referred to this subset of students as “low-hanging fruit.”
However, the keynote speaker challenged the 60 or so conference attendees to view the students as much more than just an easy way to help the nation increase the number of its college graduates.
“View them as life learners, not just another notch in the belt, or something to improve the graduation rate,” said Lee Fisher, President and CEO of the Chicago-based CEOs for Cities.
The ultimate goal, he said, should be to help students become part of the workforce so they can attain happiness, take care of their loved ones and bring about more prosperity in the nation and in the world.
Beyond the merits of re-engaging students who are just a few credits away from their degrees—or, in some cases, technically eligible for their degrees—institutional leaders raised important questions about the practicality and affordability of it all.
Dr. Clifford Adelman, a panelist and senior associate at IHEP, urged the attendees to anticipate some labor-intensive work when it comes to the re-engagement of students, particularly when it comes to doing “degree audits” and taking other steps to figure out who is eligible to get a degree or in a position to get one in a short amount of time.
“You’re in for a lot of sweat to see who meets the criteria,” Adelman said, speaking from his experience running Project Win Win, a Lumina Foundation-funded initiative that involves finding former students who are technically eligible to receive a degree, or “academically short” of an associate’s degree by nine credits or less, and retroactively granting those degrees or bringing the students back to earn them.
One speaker suggested looking at the life experiences of returning students “at a deeper level” and translating those experiences as competencies that should be counted toward their degrees. However, Adelman cautioned against becoming too bogged down in allowing individualized learning plans for returning students.
“You can’t go individualized all over the place,” Adelman said, explaining that doing so will overburden the faculty.
At a breakout session on affordability, institutional leaders asked how colleges can afford to pay for efforts to re-engage students at a time of great budgetary constraints.
Alisa Frederico Cunningham, Vice President of Research for IHEP, said unfortunately cost-benefit analyses are scarce to non-existent.
However, panelist Aaron Thompson, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s Kentucky Adult Learner Initiative, also known as KALI, shared figures with Diverse that provide a glimpse at the return on investment for re-engaging students who were near completion.
Through Project Graduate, a collaborative effort in which the council strives to reach out to the 11,000 Kentuckians who have earned 90 or more credit hours and encourage them to return to earn a bachelor’s degree, the nine Kentucky universities that belong to the council have taken in a total of an additional $7.4 million in tuition.
The precise total of the financial outlay for these students is not known, Thompson said, but the money spent was just a portion of the $500,000 that Lumina provided for KALI. There were also manpower hours involved, but they mostly involved employees who were already in place.
The figures also show that roughly one-third of the roughly 1,800 students who were re-engaged in school through the project ultimately graduated.
“It makes sense on two levels: tuition and taxes,” Thompson said when asked if the money spent on re-engaging students was worth it, explaining that students who get college degrees tend to pay higher amounts of taxes because they earn more money.
In addition to issues of affordability, attendees and speakers broached topics of academic integrity.
While some suggested waiving certain degree requirements—from unpaid fees that may have caused a student’s records to be placed on hold, to revisiting college-level math requirements—Adelman, who also suggested reassessing the meaning of college-level math, stressed the need to make sure that degrees still represent academic accomplishment.
“The whole issue is maintaining the academic integrity of the degree,” Adelman said. “You can’t just slip something under the table.”
Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, President of IHEP, said college completion in and of itself cannot be the overarching goal.
“If degrees don’t signify actual skills, if we don’t have people who have skills, knowledge and ability to take on jobs of the 21st century, then we actually have not done our job,” Cooper said. “We just met a numerical goal.”