Public Colleges Pledge to Raise Number of Graduates, and Seek Help in Doing So

October 02, 2012

Nearly 500 of the nation's public four-year colleges have committed to increasing the number of baccalaureate-degree holders by 3.8 million by 2025. But the colleges need help from the federal and state governments to reach that goal, say higher-education leaders.

The public colleges' pledge was announced on Tuesday in a conference call with college presidents and officials at two organizations that represent the colleges: the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In signing on to the effort, called "Project Degree Completion," the institutions are promising to do their part to help 60 percent of adults earn a college degree by 2025.

To reach that mark, the colleges pledged to increase the number of undergraduate degrees they award annually from a little more than one million in 2011 to nearly 1.6 million per year in 2025.

That equals about a 3-percent annual increase in total degrees, said M. Peter McPherson, president of the association of land-grant universities, which has 217 members consisting of state universities, land-grant universities, state-university systems, and related organizations. What will heighten the challenge, he said, is the growing diversity of the student body, including more low-income and first-generation students.

"That's a big deal," said Mr. McPherson, who said some institutions were initially concerned about signing on to the project.

The project parallels a goal set by President Obama to have the United States lead the world by 2020 in its proportion of college graduates.

Some common strategies are emerging to increase the number of degree holders. The strategies include reaching out to former students who took courses at the colleges but did not complete their degrees, collaborating more closely with elementary and secondary schools and community colleges, limiting the number of credits needed for certain majors, and providing more-intensive academic advising.

The state-college association has begun an online discussion, called the "Innovation Exchange," that is meant for institutions to share promising new approaches.

While many, and perhaps most, public colleges are already involved in efforts to improve graduation rates, working on Project Degree Completion is a way to spur change and hold institutions accountable, Mr. McPherson said. The associations also plan to release an annual report charting the overall number of degrees produced by the participating institutions.

In addition to the actions on individual campuses, the institutions are asking for more government support, in the form of either reduced regulations or increased appropriations. State spending on public higher education has taken a dive since the economic downturn and, on a per-student basis, has fallen to a 25-year low because of state budget cuts and enrollment increases.

As a result, public colleges have had to rely on tuition increases to replace shrinking state money, even as they have had to cut spending, the associations say.

"In short, the full partnership between public colleges and universities, the states, and the federal government needs to be re-established with each partner fulfilling its responsibilities," says a news release from the groups.