Moving the needle on graduation rates might be the most pressing challenge for today’s higher education leaders. While some individual campuses have emerged as success stories around college completion, growth in the nation’s college completion rate has stalled at 62.2%, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Failing to graduate isn’t necessarily the fault of the learner, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college or older students trying to balance school, jobs, families and a host of personal responsibilities. Rather, the blame often lies with the institutions, which remain stuck in a previous era and have not evolved to meet the needs of most working learners.
To better serve these learners, institutions must build programs for the busy adults and first-generation students who make up significant and growing shares of today’s college population. College leaders serious about improving student success and graduating the learners who enroll in their institutions should ask themselves these five questions as we head into 2024:
Do we have programs that work for someone living day to day?
Many adult learners must prioritize earning a living and caring for their families. Institutions must respect this reality by maximizing flexibility for learners and structure their programs to promote student success.
Programs should start monthly and be as short as possible. Four- and eight-week courses and shorter terms can accelerate student learning. Programs also should award certificates of value, such as embedded industry-validated credentials— which can improve employment rates and median incomes for those who hold them — and offer multiple on- and off-ramps so learners can easily move back and forth between school and work.
Have we created programs that limit the need for child care?
Child care can consume as much as 19% of a family’s median income per child, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, thus making it unobtainable. Though on-campus child care centers have improved retention and graduation rates, the current regulatory environment has inflated operating costs, so fewer colleges are now offering this service.
What institutions can control is program structure. If institutions can minimize the number of days that students must come to campus and offer virtual instruction at other times, it makes it easier and less expensive to find childcare and lowers a major barrier to enrollment.
Are our programs stackable and focused toward career progression?
Colleges must design programs that lead directly to in-demand careers that can help them achieve personal stability as well as growth. Once students earn a certificate, they can gain a foothold in an industry. And once they enter that field, they’ll find that an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree can open up even more possibilities.
By allowing the credits from one program to stack toward a higher credential, institutions can facilitate the upward mobility of their learners. Students should be able to earn and learn and not have to start over every time they begin a new credential program.
Do we accept credit for prior learning and experience?
Offering credit for prior learning — through on-the-job or military training, industry-recognized credentials, portfolios or exams — can jump start a student’s academic career and save them time and money as they progress toward the credential they’re seeking. Credit for prior learning is an important ingredient in the recipe for student success: Research has shown that students who receive it complete college at nearly twice the rate of their peers.
Are our learners comfortable communicating in times of need and able to receive the support they need?
Faculty and staff should check in regularly with their students to see how they’re faring not just in school but in their lives. By using data and reporting, they should be able to talk to students not just about an individual class but about their entire educational journey.
Institutions also must ensure resources are available to meet students’ academic and personal needs, such as health, housing, transportation, and finances. If the institution doesn’t directly offer support, it must and can connect students to community resources that can provide assistance. Belonging is crucial to student success, so it’s important that students feel seen and supported by caring faculty and staff.
Measuring progress is also critical. A study conducted by the Rice University School Mathematics Project found that our Hispanic students — who make up a majority of CHCP’s enrollment — are graduating at rates well above national averages. We remain committed to improving these metrics.
By building modern institutional structures that support today’s students instead of forcing them into outdated systems, colleges and universities can help more learners achieve their dreams and improve their lives. The institutions that can evolve in this way will be the ones that stay vibrant and relevant and move college completion rates in the right direction again.
Eric Bing is chancellor and CEO of The College of Health Care Professions.