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Forum: Reaching 2020 Degree Completion Goal May Require Multi-State Approach and Credit for Prior Learning

WASHINGTON – During opening remarks delivered Thursday morning at a Center for American Progress forum titled “Improving Degree Completion for 21st Century Students,” Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter discussed the challenges that education leaders and advocates must overcome to successfully increase in 10 years the proportion of students who complete college from 42 percent to 60 percent. This goal, she noted, cannot be accomplished via the inevitable uptick that will occur based on population increases but will instead require an additional 8 million graduates.

” The art and science of this in my opinion is the relationships that we can build and architect and support and incentivize across states and [local and regional] communities and what we can do at the federal level in concert with states, institutions and communities,” Kanter said.

The Education Department has adopted a cradle-to-career agenda that focuses preparing society across generations for college completion, including the 30 percent of children who aren’t ready for kindergarten; the seventh-grader slated to earn an undergraduate degree in 2020; the 25 to 50 percent of students who drop out of high school; and the millions of adults who have little or no college experience or who have attended, but not completed, their higher education pursuits. Kanter said that closing achievement gaps between African-American and Hispanic students and their White counterparts also is a big challenge but nonetheless must be solved.

Kanter pointed repeatedly to two reports co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, which were released during the forum, that offer creative solutions to some of the challenges she described.

In “Degree Completion Beyond Institutional Borders,” researchers argue that the average community college student earns 20 extra credits in the course of pursuing a bachelor’s degree because colleges and universities make the transfer of credits unnecessarily difficult. As a result, students waste their own time, effort and money but also public funds in the form of Pell Grants and state subsidies. The authors also called for increased use of prior learning assessment programs that would enable students to receive college credit from previous experience and already-developed competencies.

“With nontraditional learners, we’re talking about people who are not coming to postsecondary education right out of high school. They are going to work, spending time in the military and getting training and experience in those activities. They’re also participating in self-directed learning in some cases,” explained Rebecca Klein-Collins, director of research for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and one of the paper’s authors. Higher education needs to find a way to give nontraditional students credit for previous training and experience, she said.

The paper also recommends the creation of a national commission to study student mobility and incentive programs for states to improve articulation agreements; a national database that students can use to assess information about the transferability of credits and a national hotline they can call for advice about credit transfer and prior learning assessment; and improving data collection on student transfers.

The authors of “Easy Come, EZ Go” called for a regional rather than state-based approach to expanding educational opportunities that would make it easier for students to transfer without losing credit or having to pay higher, out-of-state tuition rates. They identified 44 metropolitan areas that include at least two states; the 20 largest account for more than 66 million people and could play a major role in reaching the 2020 college graduation goal. They include New York, which touches New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Chicago, which touches Indiana and Wisconsin.

Dr. Gregory Kienzl, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and one of the paper’s authors, said the federal government should create Educational Zone Governance Organizations in multi-state metropolitan areas and offer incentives that would encourage the regional approach. Otherwise, Kienzl said, the 2020 goal will be even more difficult to reach.

To view a video of the event, click here.

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