Education Department Turns Policy Attention to College Completion

January 30, 2012

Following a flurry of higher-education policy proposals by President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education on Monday hosted a symposium meant to advance the administration's goal of increasing the nation's number of college graduates.

The president has said that he wants the United States to have the highest rate of college completion in the world by 2020. So far, however, the administration has focused more on getting students into college than on helping them finish their degrees, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said to participants at the symposium.

"To this point, we have been working on access," Mr. Duncan said—for example, by increasing the amount of federal Pell Grants for low-income students. "We have not done enough to incent completion," he said.

The symposium featured presentations on research and best practices on how to better prepare incoming students for the rigor of college courses, and how to better support those students through advising and mentoring as they progress through higher education. A list of attendees included about 60 faculty researchers, administrators, and representatives of companies and nonprofit organizations that are working on improving completion rates.

Stan Jones, president of the nonprofit group Complete College America, said the issue of increasing completion rates was still emerging and that many in higher education were unaware of how low graduation rates are at many institutions. The value of the department's symposium, he said, is the opportunity it provides for groups and institutions to get together and share their experiences with promising new practices.

George D. Kuh, emeritus professor of higher education at Indiana University, said the symposium was a good symbolic gesture to show that the department is putting some thought and effort into fulfilling its completion agenda. But he added that the practices that were discussed were all covered in a symposium that the department hosted in 2006 that attracted more than 500 people.

"The topic that has received the most attention in the higher-education literature for the past 40 years is student persistence," said Mr. Kuh.

What has been lacking, however, is the institutions' commitment to using a variety of common practices to keep college students enrolled and graduating, he said. "Our problem is we don't use very much of what we know works."