College-Completion Campaign Opens With Forum in Maryland

January 31, 2011

The nation will not prosper unless the country produces more college graduates, and efforts to attain that goal need to start in the early grades, not just when students reach colleges, said speakers who gathered here on Monday at the Maryland State House to kick off a nationwide, yearlong campaign to improve the nation's college-completion rates.

Monday's event, sponsored by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center in collaboration with the National Conference of State Legislatures, is among several such efforts that have gained considerable momentum since President Obama announced that he wanted the nation to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

The main goal of the campaign, formally the "College Completion Agenda: State Capitals Campaign," is to increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate degree or higher to 55 percent by 2025, up from 41.6 percent in 2008. That would make the United States the world leader in educational attainment, said the campaign's leaders, who include officials from state governments and elementary, secondary, and higher education.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, reminded those in attendance that the United States ranked first in the world in the proportion of adults with a college degree as recently as the 1980s. He said that today the United States ranks 12th among industrialized nations in college completion.

"We must turn this situation around," he said. "The U.S. cannot be the leader in the world in things that matter if we aren't the leader in educating our citizens."

To tackle the college-completion issue, the College Board convened a commission to study the education pipeline as a single continuum and then to identify strategies to significantly increase the proportion of students, especially low-income and underrepresented minority students, who graduate from college and are prepared to succeed in society. The commission's report established 10 interdependent recommendations to reach the goal of ensuring that at least 55 percent of Americans hold a postsecondary degree by 2025.

Among other suggestions, the commission called for the admission process to be clarified and simplified, the best research-based dropout-prevention programs to be adopted, and middle- and high-school college counseling to be improved.

For its part, the National Conference of State Legislatures put together a comprehensive state policy guide to help state legislators better understand the college-completion issue. Julie Davis Bell, the national conference's education-group director, said that changes in state policy were essential to achieving the college-completion goals.

"Legislators are absolutely front and center in this discussion," she said. "They are the most important policy makers of all. They alone set the crucial funding and policy decisions that will allow us to improve our educational outcomes."

The conversation on Monday was just the beginning of a series of high-profile events that will take place this year, campaign leaders said. Numerous roundtables, town-hall meetings, and summits are also planned, in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia, and other states.