For Student Success, Stop Debating and Start Improving

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle

April 08, 2012

Historically, higher education has fueled social and economic mobility in America. But today that contribution is at risk. Attainment gaps between high- and low-income students have doubled over the past 10 years. Only 9 percent of students from low-income households have earned any postsecondary credentials by the time they are 26, compared with more than 50 percent of students from higher-income households. We must do far more, and with far more speed, than we are doing now to close this gap. If we can ensure that the majority of today's low-income young adults earn credentials beyond high school, they will qualify for family-supporting jobs and set their children on a path of upward mobility­—a powerful way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

The United States has a long way to go to reach that goal—a problem not just for low-income families but for all of us. Completion rates have stayed stubbornly flat for the past 30 years, despite vastly increased access to higher education and increased spending. While there is promising movement, we are not pursuing change with anywhere near the urgency or focus required to make a real dent in the problem, especially compared with countries that have surpassed us in raising postsecondary completion rates for 25- to 34-year-olds.

My perspective on these issues grows from my work over the past five years leading the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's investments to improve postsecondary success for low-income students. I have seen up close the multiple challenges that face higher education in these times of budget cuts and increased public concern over the value and cost of college. Yet in my experience, three broad but unproductive areas of debate distract us from solving the central challenges. Here's what ought to be happening:

1) Institutions should improve student success by focusing on practices within their control instead of blaming external factors.

When asked about the challenges they face in helping more students graduate, higher-education leaders tend to list external forces, such as budget cuts and poor academic preparation. Yet regardless of whether states or the federal government restore needed support, or our K-12 system produces better-prepared graduates, institutions can do more with mechanisms directly within their control to help the students they enroll.

Research has shown that institutional practices make a big difference in student success. Similar institutions (of comparable size, selectivity, and student composition) vary more significantly in their completion rates and success with underrepresented populations within segments than they do between segments—with high performers outpacing low performers by as much as 40 percentage points.

Institutions can directly affect student success by customizing learning and support, redesigning placement tests and developmental education, and reducing excess credits and the time it takes to get a degree. By decreasing excess time to degree and increasing completion rates, colleges could also achieve productivity gains and thus enroll and serve more students.

Effective strategies start with a clear vision of who today's students are. The majority are nontraditional in some way—they work and go to school; they don't live on campus; they take longer than expected to graduate. Equally important, the fastest-growing populations are those historically most underrepresented and underserved—first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.

Higher education needs a culture shift that rewards colleges as much for innovating to improve success for those students as the current culture rewards them for improving their institutional rankings. And let me be clear: This shift must involve the full spectrum of higher-education institutions.

We also need smarter collaboration among colleges because how students attend college has changed as well. The new norm is "swirl"—students attend more than one institution, sometimes simultaneously. They piece together credits and courses, often online. One-third of all students change institutions at some time before earning degrees, and 27 percent transfer across state lines. All trends indicate that we will see more swirl, not less, in the years ahead. In response, we need more-transparent information to help students stay on track, better ways to assess the quality of learning at different kinds of institutions, and clearer transfer pathways.

2) Give students more-structured academic programs that accelerate their progress toward degrees.

Five years ago, there was significant concern that increasing attention to completion would weaken commitment to access and quality. While those concerns remain, today's debate focuses more on how to define "success" so that it includes all three dimensions. Still, critics of the "completion agenda" worry that it will degrade quality by constraining choice, thus shortchanging liberal-arts learning and forcing students to forgo personal growth as they hurry through the undergraduate experience.

We are learning that structured (and often limited) choice works best for most students. Honors programs in elite colleges and professional education in business, law, and medicine embody structured choice. If this works for the best-prepared students, we should provide it to those who need it most. For example, a recent study by the Community College Research Center shows that community-college students who enter a specific program of study within their first year are much more likely to earn credentials and/or transfer than are students who enter a concentration a year or two later.

Programs of study in two- and four-year colleges do not themselves require narrowing. They can be designed to guarantee exposure to different subject areas, to promote critical thinking, and to allow students to challenge assumptions and debate ideas. For example, in designing a new general-education associate degree in applied sciences, the faculty at Tennessee's community colleges collectively determined the required courses, including philosophy.

We need to help more students enter structured programs of study as soon as they can. But that will require institutions to make the trade-offs in what constitutes a high-quality program of study, rather than leave it to students.

3) Accept that preparing for work and pursuing a liberal-arts education are not mutually exclusive.

This is a pernicious debate, because it stereotypes institutions (liberal-arts colleges versus community colleges) and by extension, their students. Such stereotypes are at best ill-informed and at worst profoundly condescending.

Work is a path to dignity and self-esteem for most people. Most college students and their families seek preparation for gainful employment. Many need paths that start with modest steps that allow them to work and then advance. They have long lives over which to continue formal and informal learning.

Even aside from that, community colleges (which enroll 42 percent of all undergraduates in the United States) are not primarily about job training. The largest degree program (over half of all enrolled students) is the general-education-transfer curriculum. Large numbers of community-college students enroll in liberal-arts courses. According to Gail Mellow, president of La Guardia Community College of the City University of New York, more students take philosophy there than in all of the small, private liberal-arts colleges in New England combined—and in smaller class sizes, not large lecture halls.

Finally, it is not the case that students pursuing vocational training don't think about the big questions of justice, democracy, and citizenship. We should all be inspired by courses like Wick Sloane's English class at Bunker Hill Community College where refugees, immigrants, veterans, and low-wage workers discuss the Bill of Rights and Walt Whitman. Community colleges don't need to develop exchange programs to help their students experience diverse cultures­—they embody them.

Today's students need exposure to both liberal learning and vocational skills. The only way that shorter-term vocational preparation risks tracking students is if dead ends between programs make it harder for them to move forward.

What are we learning about the best path forward to solve the real problems? While critics worry that the Gates Foundation may try to force its agenda on higher education, we see our role as funding diverse approaches that allow higher education to create its own solutions. With that in mind, I suggest the following priorities for our concerted attention:

  • Optimize the rich higher-education "ecosystem" we've got. America's vaunted higher-education system is not just about public and private nonprofit four-year colleges. Community colleges are an underresourced asset for states and students. The best for-profit institutions offer nimbleness, capacity, and innovation that the rest of higher education can learn from. We need a range of institutions, with better connections among them.
  • Fundamentally rethink how we as a society finance the public good of higher education. The disinvestment in public higher education over the past two decades has shifted greater costs and risks to students and their families, and has especially hurt the open-access two- and four-year colleges that educate the majority of college students. Restructure funding streams to motivate institutions to offer, and students to achieve, high-quality credentials, at a reasonable cost and time to degree completion.
  • Break the tyranny of the credit hour and ease transfers among institutions. We need the best researchers and the most gifted teachers in higher education to focus on these challenges—like Harvard's Eric Mazur, who has radically redesigned his physics course based on research showing that students in the traditional lecture format had not learned as much as he thought.
  • Use all means to increase personalization and student success. The most powerful forms of technology are not simply putting traditional education online but are transforming the process to maximize learning and retention. The tools need not be high tech: Mentors dedicated to helping students navigate their degree programs, like those at Western Governors University, help students persist and succeed. That kind of differentiated role will especially be needed in an "unbundled" world of free course content, where added value will come from figuring out how to support student motivation and progress.
  • Accelerate innovations aimed at increasing value while decreasing cost. The Gates Foundation's third Next Generation Learning Challenge attracted strong proposals to create delivery models that can serve a minimum of 5,000 students at a cost of $5,000 or less, with completion rates of 50 percent or more.
  • Build organizational infrastructures to guide colleges through this crucial transformation and develop a new breed of leaders to support it. Unlike K-12, which has a wide array of organizations and leaders dedicated to reform (New Leaders for New Schools, new approaches to talent development, technical-assistance providers), this is nascent in higher education.
  • Welcome data and be transparent about results. You can't get better unless you know where you are. Institutions and states should focus first on using data to learn how to drive improvement, rather than move to premature accountability systems.

The increasing pressure on higher education to produce more degrees of a higher quality at a cost students can afford is both overdue and necessary. But in the end, the most-effective changes will come from institutions of higher education themselves.

Rather than top-down reforms, social movements may have more to teach us, for the matter is not so much about external pressure but about changing hearts and minds. We need to build common cause among communities of practice (faculty, courageous leaders) who can change the belief system in higher education, and to convince faculty, administrators, and trustees that it is everyone's job to improve every student's success.

Change will require multiple points of view and many people working on different dimensions of the problem over a sustained period of time. We should put counterproductive debates behind us, and set about the urgent business of the revolutionary improvement that students and our country need.

Hilary Pennington is an expert on postsecondary education, most recently serving as director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.