Raising Graduation Rates Involves More Than Just Colleges

December 12, 2010

This fall saw still more in a long line of policy reports on America's struggle to narrow postsecondary achievement gaps and improve graduation rates. The American Council on Education released its annual assessment, "Minorities in Higher Education," highlighting persistent disparities within the nation's growing Latino community. And the Center for American Progress trod new ground with "Easy Come, EZ-GO," advocating policies aimed at improving educational attainment for students living in metropolitan regions that cross state boundaries. Rigorous and innovative, such reports have become part of a national narrative that tells the story of a higher-education system beset with barriers and in need of aggressive and creative policy solutions.

How else will we reach President Obama's goal that, by 2020, America will once again lead the world in postsecondary completion? If the past twenty-something months have taught us anything, it is that while the president's goal is straightforward, the solutions are complex. In addition to replicating proven student-retention practices, higher education needs creative approaches to educating what the Lumina Foundation for Education and others call "21st-century students": those from growing racial and ethnic minority groups, those who are the first in their families to attend college, adult learners, and displaced workers. Often attending multiple institutions across state borders, they are likely to be part-timers and to begin higher education at two-year institutions.

The challenges our higher-education system faces cannot be solved by individual colleges alone. What it needs are new and prominent allies that have a vested interest in seeing more postsecondary degrees and credentials go to those young people and adults to whom higher education has not always reached out. Some colleges, education associations, and state education officials are working with external players, but more should do so.

Business leaders, civil-rights organizations, and youth-advocacy groups are right for this role. While those sectors have long looked to education as a driver of economic development and social change, their leadership is placing new emphasis on postsecondary completion. Private and corporate foundations—like Lumina, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others—are drawing on social-science scholarship, public-opinion research, and a national education agenda to stimulate college-access and completion efforts with hundreds of millions of new dollars. For example, with foundation support, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (where I work) is providing space for the newly formed Coalition for College Completion, which brings together national business, civil-rights, and youth-advocacy groups to provide each organization's base with the knowledge and policy tools to advance the completion movement while building on shared interests.

In the past, leading business associations have concentrated on improving elementary and secondary education and aligning school and college curricula. Now they are turning their attention to college completion. Take the Manufacturing Institute—a nonprofit, nonpartisan affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. The institute is developing, together with community colleges in four states, a program to certify skills for advanced manufacturing careers. The emphasis is on low-income adults and workers in career transition.

CEOs for Cities is building relationships with metropolitan colleges to revitalize weakened urban economies. In partnership with city governments, the nonprofit hopes to attract new workers and help the cities retain more of their postsecondary graduates.

Recognizing the systemic barriers that keep low-income, first-generation, and minority students from finishing college, civil-rights groups like the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or Naleo, are moving beyond issues of college access to degree completion. Naleo, for instance, is providing its members with important information on enacting higher-education completion policies.

With an activist mind-set, youth-advocacy groups are moving from messages on college access and affordability to a focus on completion. According to the American Council on Education report, Hispanic and African-American youth are not reaching beyond the education level of generations before them. Groups like, which was founded on a college campus, are using Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking tools to mobilize students on educational and other issues. In 2010-11, the organization will sponsor a series of summits on community-college completion. Also putting students at the helm is Campus Progress, a division of the Center for American Progress, which elevates the student voice on issues like improving college completion.

Each of those organizations has a distinct reason to contribute to a national conversation on what it will take to get more of our population to complete education beyond high school. Their combined efforts will advance the retention and completion goals long held by higher education. The 21st-century student is a beneficiary, whether direct or indirect, of the advocacy and forward thinking of civil-rights and youth leadership. And the businesses that will shape this century's economy are ready and waiting to expand the information-age work force.

The arrival of new players to the college-completion discussion brings promise—and uncertainty, given the need to unite the diverse goals of very different sectors. What is certain is that new players are at the table of higher education because they belong there. Taken together, the business, civil-rights, and youth-advocacy sectors represent a powerful force of unlikely partners that is certain to advance postsecondary completion in America.

Lorelle L. Espinosa is director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.