In a letter published by the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment last week, college leaders recommended that schools begin to research measures on increasing completion rates in order to achieve the national goal of creating a skilled workforce. With financial barriers largely contributing to the college “drop-out crisis,” leaders have responded with advice that can be used to tackle low retention rates among the nation’s universities.
Assembled of six higher education associations, The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment suggested that colleges begin to focus on raising the 46 percent of students who complete colleges within six years. Not only do leaders advise that students finish earlier than six years, but colleges should also begin to structure designated retention rate programs. The Commission relied on three areas of reform: changing campus culture, improving cost-effectiveness, and improving the use of research and data.
Currently, the reform in higher education has relied too heavily on college accessibility and affordability, as noted in the letter. As a result, many institutions are neglecting students after their entrance into institutions and failing to offer progression assistance.
E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chair of the Commission, explained, “This letter is a renewed call for collective and immediate action at a pivotal moment for higher education.”
Gee directed college leaders and claimed, “We believe every institution must pay as much attention to the number of degrees it grants—completion—as it does to success in admissions and recruitment.”
The Commission recommended that the first of many immediate actions would be to create a student-centered culture. In order to do so, Gee, along with other college presidents, advised that each Institution nominate a dean or executive member to control and oversee the retention rates associated with each school. Adhering to the needs of the students and initiating school-specific research around how to maintain enrollment were priority items for all colleges.
In starting research around retention rates, the Commission found the majority of students attending higher education institutions typically are nontraditional students whether they are classified as first-generation students, adult learners, or are merely students coming from lower-income families. With such perplexing data, the discourse concerning completion rates began to accommodate the needs of nontraditional students as a whole.
“There’s obviously a variety of reasons that are often as diverse as the students who are dropping out, but, for many, the real problem is the expense,” explained Robert King, president of the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education.
In a discussion around dropout rates, King said, “They (nontraditional students) have enough money to make it through three years—or even four years. But, because they haven’t completed enough credit hours to earn their degree, their personal finances often force them to have to stop with the hope that maybe a year, or two, or three later, they’ll come back and finish, but the data tell us that it’s rarely the case that they do.”
The Commission’s letter responded to King’s concern for nontraditional students by suggesting a shorter transition period for such students. For veterans, who are considered nontraditional students and comprise a growing portion of college enrollment numbers, some institutions offered full-time counseling, financial aid packages, and peer mentoring services. The Commission noted that all schools including community colleges, state colleges, and private colleges should begin to provide counseling services that make the trajectory of college more practical for nontraditional students.
However, Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University graduate school of education, noticed that the dropout rate for nontraditional students is not solely the result of a flawed education system. Instead, Baum raised the idea that the responsibility of college completion also relies heavily on the student.
“It’s important to individuals that they have the ‘wherewithal’ to be successful in the labor force,” Baum said.
She added, “There are a lot of reasons (why people don’t complete college). For some people, it’s money; but it’s by no means just about money. It’s about how well prepared they are. It’s about life happenings; it’s about a lot of other issues.”
Among the many circumstantial reasons behind the college dropout crisis, members of the Commission have still pushed for innovative and transformative research that can be used to better measure, but more importantly recover from, the completion rate dilemma.
“Just as better use of the data at the institutional level is crucial, so is the creation of high-quality, nationally comparable data on university performance on a range of measures,” noted members of the Commission in the letter.