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Conference Highlights Helping Students With Timely Degree Completion

BALTIMORE – Colleges and universities must find ways to help their increasingly diverse student bodies earn their degrees on time and accept responsibility if large numbers of students persistently take too long to graduate, a series of panelists here said Wednesday.

“This is going to take such a massive effort,” said Dr. David Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), speaking at a conference titled “Time to Completion: How States and Systems are Tackling the Time Dilemma.”

The event was sponsored by SREB, an organization that works with 16 member states to improve public pre-K-12 and higher education, and Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based organization that works on developing new education and workforce strategies.

“We can’t get there simply by setting higher goals. We tried that,” Spence told the nearly four dozen conferees. “And we simply can’t get there by measuring our accountability.”

“It’s going to take all these things and then all of these state actions and campus actions in the context of a terrible economy over the next 10 years, at least as it relates to higher education,” Spence said.

At the two-day conference, which wraps up today, lawmakers, higher education leaders and others shared their experiences and floated ideas that were all centered around moving students through college in a timely fashion.

Among the ideas discussed were smarter, more targeted approaches toward remedial education, better systems of credit transfer and undertaking efforts to remove extraneous courses from a student’s course requirements.

Dr. Jolene Koester, president of California State University, Northridge, which serves large numbers of students from the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that, shortly after she took over the university in 2000, she implemented a task force to focus on timely degree completion.

Subsequently, the school shrunk the number of credits in various majors, reduced the general education requirements, and started offering online remedial courses in smaller units so that students only get the remediation they need and at their own pace instead of having to take an entire remedial class in lockstep with other students.

As a result of these and other efforts, Koester said, the average time to a baccalaureate degree for “traditionally underserved” students decreased from 6.7 to 6.1 years.

Data played a crucial role in the effort, she said.

“We use evidence,” Koester said.” “It makes no sense to do any of this without having a strong institutional studies function that staff can ask questions of.”

Kentucky State Sen. Tim Shaughnessy (D-Louisville) blamed what he described as the outdated “chalk and talk” model of American education for lackluster degree completion rates that are causing constant slippage in the nation’s world status in educational attainment.

Noting how Kentucky’s four-year graduation rate was 17 percent in recent years, he said no one would accept an 83 percent failure rate in other realms of life.

“I don’t care how sexy your cell phone is,” Shaughnessy said. “I don’t think anyone would want a cell phone that drops 83 percent of the calls.”

Now, since the nation moved to measuring graduation from four-year institutions in six-year intervals, the graduation rate in Kentucky is 45 percent.

Shaughnessy lamented the move to use six-year intervals, saying no business would willingly give its employees two additional years to get a job done.

Showing a slide of a jetliner, the Kentucky lawmaker said: “How many of us will fly on an airline that 55 percent of the time the plane takes off it’s gonna crash?”

Dr. Sarah Turner, professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, sought to dispel the notion that lower graduation rates nationally were due to greater college access for more diverse bodies of students, including larger numbers of low-income students.

“There’s absolutely no support in the data for this explanation,” Turner said. “That is, among those who receive degrees, their pre-college achievement is not much different than it was three decades ago. So just cross that off your list.”

Turner recommended better pre-college guidance as one way to increase college degree attainment.

“If you give students better information early on about what they’re going to need to succeed in college, it can have a clear effect on degree progress,” she said.

Turner also cited financial concerns as being a primary culprit for delayed degree completion. She espoused the benefits of better financial literacy, making students more aware of all the financial aid they are eligible to receive, and giving students emergency cash to help them with various crises and thereby avoid delays and larger problems that come about as a result of late payment fees and blocked registration.

She also noted that today’s students are taking longer to graduate because they are working jobs to make ends meet.

“They often take longer because they are working and are averse to debt,” Turner said.

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, said America’s colleges and universities work well for “the students they were designed for,” referring to middle class students who can rely on the income of their parents to get through college in four years.

But in order to make a difference for first-generation college students who don’t have middle class parents supporting them, Jones said, entire systems will have to be revamped.

“If we change at the margins, you’ll get marginal change,” Jones said.

As an example of meaningful change, he noted the example of The City University of New York (CUNY), which he said tripled graduation rates by offering classes in blocks instead of requiring students to come to campus at various times throughout the day.

Spence, of SREB, offered a series of recommendations that he said will not only boost college completion rates but also save states money.

Among them, he said, were finding ways to get rid of unnecessary credit hours and for states to develop statewide systems that better enable students to transfer their credits from one institution to another.

“You have to find out for yourself the extent of your excess (credit) hour problem,” Spence said. But he said dealing with the problem of extraneous credit hours could save states millions of dollars.

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