The Completion Cacophony

The chorus trumpeting the need for the United States to move more Americans into and out of college with a meaningful credential just got a little louder.

Complete College America, whose creation was formally announced Tuesday, focuses "solely," it emphasizes, "on dramatically increasing the nation’s college completion rate through state policy change," and on building "consensus for change among state leaders, higher education, and the national education policy community." That’s a logical focus for its president, Stan Jones, who spent 30 years working on higher education issues as a legislator, gubernatorial adviser and commissioner of higher education in Indiana.

The group will begin its work with an alliance of 17 states (so far) that have agreed to set clear goals for degree and credential completion through 2020, develop state-specific plans and strategies for achieving those goals, and college and report common measures of progress using consistent data.

The extent to which the organization can really be seen as a "new" voice in the cacophony of entities who’ve taken up the "college completion" agenda depends on how you look at it. Like so many of the organizations promoting this work, Complete College America has backing from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which together (through their grant making and their advocacy in Washington) have been the primary drivers of this push (along, of course, with the Obama administration, which has thrown its rhetorical and budgeting weight behind the foundations’ completion agenda).

But in a broadening of that coalition, three other grant makers with longstanding relationships to higher education have fallen in line behind Gates and Lumina on the completion agenda in backing Jones’s group: Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Together, the five foundations will provide $12 million over four years.

At a time when several other groups, including the National Association of System Heads and Lumina’s Making Opportunity Affordable, have undertaken their own campaigns focused on college completion (funded in whole or in part by Lumina and/or Gates), it’s fair to ask whether and how this completion effort will differ from (complement? compete with?) the others. Jones answers unequivocally: His group, he says, will work directly with governors and other political leaders in the 17 states to "take the best of the ideas that are out there and use them to get things done" to improve college completion numbers and rates. "Unless you have the governor’s support, you’re pushing the rock up the hill," Jones said

In that way the effort will build on the work that Jones and his nascent organization did in recent months in Tennessee, where they helped Gov. Phil Bredesen propel a measure through the state General Assembly that directs the state’s Board of Regents and Higher Education Commission to rewrite the higher education funding formula to emphasize credential completion over seat time, remove barriers to credit transfer among institutions, and create a community college system, among other things,

Bredesen was featured prominently during a telephone news conference introducing Complete College America, and that was no accident; Jones describes the Tennessee governor as "an all-star" in terms of his emphasis on higher education as an issue, and acknowledges that not all governors — even in the 16 other states that have committed to the new group — are likely to dive into higher education reform to the same degree he did.

Jones and the governor soundly rejected the notion that states’ economic woes will deter efforts to promote the kinds of aggressive changes that Tennessee is pursuing. Yes, some things that states might want do to increase the number of college completers within their borders would require spending money that many state treasuries won’t have in the immediate future, Bredesen said.

"We happen to be in some pretty tough years right now. Can you keep your eye on the ball, advancing those things which are important to the long-term interests of state despite these challenges?" he said. "The question is, are you going to sit there in a difficult time with your legs crossed and bemoan your fate, or are you going to try to move things forward?… I really resist the notion that governing is about allocating money…. There are more important things that sliding some umpteen million more into a university system. When you don’t have the money, you tackle [the problem] in some other way."

Bredesen added: "The stuff we’re talking about is not particularly related to investments. Changing the funding formulas, aligning community college courses [with university courses], don’t require really any money to do."

Tennessee has agreed to participate not only in Complete College America, but in Lumina’s Making Opportunity Affordable, and the Tennessee Board of Regents, which represents the state’s public, community and technical colleges (except for the University of Tennessee), is working with the Access to Success Initiative sponsored by the National Association of System Heads and Education Trust to increase completion rates for students at its institutions.

Three of Making Opportunity Affordable’s seven members (Indiana, Maryland and Tennessee) are also in Complete College America; major college systems in seven of the new group’s 17 states are also members of Access to Success.

The leaders of Complete College America see promise, not conflict, in the overlapping members and goals of the various completion efforts. "These are all consistent: the objective is to increase the success rates in those states," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina. "What’s really valuable" about the new group, he said, is that it is "well positioned to help push some of these ideas [from Lumina’s other work] across the finish line," helping to "get ideas implemented that are now working in the proof of concept stage."

Jones said he saw no danger of there being "too many" groups working on college completion issues — at least, not any time soon. "There are probably 100 access groups and organizations for every one college completion group," he said. "Nobody says, ‘We don’t need another.’
"There are clearly not enough people working on this issue. As long as they differentiate, [these groups] become complementary activities."


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