Higher-Education Groups Lay Out Strategies to Reach Obama's College-Completion Goal

December 13, 2010

President Obama's ambitious goal for the nation to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020 can be reached, says a new report by three higher-education organizations.

But getting there, the groups say, will require a commitment to action by federal, state, and institutional leaders, and not just the arcane discussions of process that have so far dominated the response to the 2020 goal.

"The collective effort to strengthen higher-education performance has yet to materialize," says the report, "Strengthening College Opportunity and Performance," which was produced by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability; the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems; and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"Over the last year, instead of vigorous debate about strategies for increasing educational attainment," the report says, "we saw technical arguments among a few think tanks and foundations about how goals are set."

The groups lay out a series of recommended policies and actions that should be taken to put the country on course to meet President Obama's objective.

The federal government, the groups say, needs to define explicit goals for all states and make sure that policies and regulations contribute to meeting goals rather than inhibiting them. For example, the kinds of data that the government collects and reports are not helpful for determining how well states and institutions are really performing in higher education, the report says.

States must have a full understanding of how many more degrees colleges should be producing, make sure that the colleges within their borders have clearly defined roles, and overhaul appropriations policies to make sure that institutions that will enroll the most students are getting an adequate amount of money and are rewarded for completions not just enrollments.

Changing how higher education is paid for "may be the hardest task of all, because it will mean abandoning well-understood and deeply ingrained practices that ... serve to preserve the institutional status quo rather than creating incentives for vital changes, such as improved persistence and graduation rates, or cost containment," the report says.

College leaders face the greatest challenges, the report says, because they must help create a new culture on their campuses. They need to begin to focus on controlling costs rather than increasing revenue and improving undergraduate instruction and graduation rates rather than raising their status through graduate programs and research.

While some in higher education have described the president's higher-education goal as a mammoth undertaking, the leaders of the three groups that wrote the report describe it as completely feasible. The United States already spends much more on higher education, as a share of gross domestic product, than any other country in the world.

"This is manageable," said Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project. "A bunch of 1-percent and 2-percent improvements will get us there."