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Report Presents New Approach to Increasing Completion Rates at Public Institutions

Complete College America makes a case for a shift in higher education funding formulas.

In the new report, “Ending Unfunded Mandates in Higher Education: Using Completion-Goals Funding to Improve Accountability and Outcomes,” Complete College America (CCA) calls on states to evolve beyond performance-based funding to what they call completion-goals funding.

The goal of virtually all colleges and universities is to increase retention and completion. Typically, the current funding model involves receiving funding after the institution shows improvement. CCA’s completion-goals funding advocates for the funding to be allocated up front, thus giving public institutions the funds to provide adequate support services which will lead to improving outcomes and meeting state completion goals.College

Charles Ansell, vice president for research, policy and advocacy at CCA, said that different states have different funding models, many of which are not working. One particularly ineffective mode, he said, is based on enrollment. Performance-based funding at least moves the conversation from inputs to outputs, but there are many limitations. 

“Looking at the current funding models, none of them have appropriately incentivized college completion, especially for colleges that have always been left behind because they’ve had fewer resources,” said Ansell. “What we need to do is make a funding model that’s based on an attainment goal, work it backwards with equity at the heart so that we can actually have these colleges act as the engines of social mobility that they’re supposed to be.”

While performance-based funding has brought increases in retention and completion, it has not had the desired effect. The current four-year graduation rate at public institutions is 40%, which the report indicates is as high as it is because of numbers from selective enrollment public institutions. Furthermore, outcomes-based funding often does not impact institutions most in need of funding, particularly those that serve underserved populations, notably BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, People of Color) and low-income students.

“There are things that colleges and universities need to do to increase graduation rates,” said Ansell. “We still need to keep pushing to get the reforms in place that work. To do that right, it does actually cost money.”

The strategies that CCA is suggesting—notably a semester-by-semester education plan for each student as well as providing academic and basic needs support—could further increase student success and completion rates.

The vital point is that public colleges and universities receive the necessary funds up front to implement proven strategies for improving completion rates. This involves states and institutions working together to determine the actual cost of giving students the optimal chance of success. Benchmarks would be established to assess success statewide, and expenditures would be based on educating the current student population. Best practices would be utilized and the results carefully tracked.

“Anyone, especially in the community college sector, would agree that funding is a gathering storm,” said Dr. Larry Hlavenka Jr., executive director of public relations, community and cultural affairs at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. “There’s a referendum that needs to occur on funding."

From the perspective of community colleges, where students don’t necessarily have linear paths or goals, "performance, completion, assessment-based funding can be dangerous because if you start using metrics such as completion rate, the method by which completion rate is determined would probably need to change,” he said. “When you’re talking about the current enrollment, graduation, assessment model that we have now, it’s not necessarily a linear path for community colleges that we should jump on board with something like this.” 

The report also advocates tuition reductions as a student success intervention that requires institutional support. While completion-goals funding requires greater allocations to the institutions, CCA advocates that successful results will positively impact not only state goals, but will also serve the workforce need for more highly skilled, well-educated individuals. 

“I’m hopeful that the right conversations for student success reform will actually proliferate further and be more clean, crisp and effective when they’re done through this lens,” Ansell said. 

Dr. Elin Waring, a professor of sociology at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, said the ideas in the CCA report are good in principle. 

“I’ve been working with the first-year students (as part of Lehman’s Step Up Program), and I totally agree with the CCA that it’s not just about enrolling first-semester students; it’s about having this big picture of getting them through, figuring out what they need,” Waring said. “But you have to be concerned that anytime it’s funding based on metrics that metrics become too much of the driver.

“We know in New York City how to help students graduate—pay for their books, give them a Metro Card (used on public transportation) so they don’t have to pay for the subway or bus, and give them really good advising so they know what courses they should be taking,” she added. “If they are having trouble, get them to the right tutor. Or get them the basic needs support they need.”

CCA is part of the Higher Ed Equity Network and CCA’s model is meant to bring thoughtful programming to institutions that serve at-risk students. 

“We need to figure out how we can fund the student success reforms and the tuition changes…that meet the housing, tech and food insecurity needs, such that these [minority-serving institutions] and the students have the resources to thrive,” he added. “This report is grappling with the financial stakes and the need to be able to serve those students to make sure no students are left behind.”

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