Establishing a Culture of Completion
By Dr. Rod Risley
Many of our leaders have expressed that the economic prosperity of any nation is inextricably tied to the education of its citizens. In the United States, obtaining a higher education credential is a pursuit that many now consider a civil right and an essential pathway toward achieving the American Dream of upward social and economic mobility. So it seems the purveyors of higher education credentials who provide individual and collective prosperity must accept responsibility for providing a product that is relevant, useful, and has future intrinsic and economic utility.
The United States has fallen from being the world's leader in the percentage of citizens holding higher education credentials to 16th among the leading 34 industrialized economies in the world. Last year, the U.S. was ranked 12th. In math scores, U.S. students rank 25th compared to their global counterparts. This comes at a time when studies show that in less than six years, 67 percent of all new jobs providing livable wages will require at minimum a post-secondary credential.
More and more students are entering our higher education institutions increasingly under-prepared, and projections suggest this number will rise significantly in a few short years. Sixty percent of all community college students must take at least one developmental education course. A student entering community college and who must take a least three developmental classes has nearly a zero percent chance of advancing to college credit courses. We need not point fingers at our secondary schools as the source of the problem of students being increasingly less prepared for college; we must all own this problem.
Eighty-five percent of the 13 million students enrolled in for-credit courses in community colleges express intention to complete a baccalaureate degree; yet studies suggest that only 10 to 25 percent of these students actually complete the degree within six years. Something is dreadfully wrong with our higher education system — and with us for allowing this to happen.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that within the United States today, according to the Department of Labor, there are more than 3 million middle- to high-income paying jobs, unfilled because our higher education institutions have been and still are training students for jobs that don't exist. We need a workforce comprised of general technologists, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, teachers — with 21st Century skills if the United States is to compete successfully in a global economy. Six hundred thousand jobs in manufacturing in the United States are unfilled today, along with 500,000 jobs in healthcare. American automotive companies are bringing back jobs from overseas, but Americans lack the skill set necessary to fill these jobs.
How could we have let this happen? To return our nation to economic prominence, which will require producing 5 million more adults with 21st Century workforce credentials — certificates and associate degrees or higher — we must completely transform how our colleges operate, what and how they teach, how they are funded and incented, how they work with other education institutions, and how they engage with industry.
According to the Department of Labor, over the next 10 years, there will be more jobs available for associate degree holders than baccalaureate degree holders. Yet, America's workforce is dwindling in number due to the graying of workers, impending retirements and the high percentage of students dropping out of high school.
Providing access to higher education is essential for the development and sustainability of a middle class. Without access, the gap between socio-economic classes will continue to widen, poverty rates will continue to climb, and the very foundation of democracy in this country as we know it will be placed in peril. For the first time in our nation's history, a child born into poverty stands little chance of emerging from poverty. Providing access to higher education by itself, however, is not enough.
Answering this call, Phi Theta Kappa has joined with the five leading national organizations serving community colleges to spearhead an effort to help meet the Community College Completion Challenge. Never in the history of community colleges has there been such a sense of urgency or collective effort to effect change in institutions as there is today.
The Community College Completion Challenge is as much about process and culture as it is about the end result of increasing the number of credentials or degrees earned. The culture today for supporting completion in many higher education institutions may be best characterized by the professor who stands before students in a large lecture hall and proudly boasts, "Look to your left and look to your right — one of you will not complete this course." This culture of a "right to fail" must be replaced with intentional and intrusive support to complete. We need a culture in our institutions where being smart is valued and recognized. Today's society promotes and perpetuates mediocrity. We need a culture that values excellence, where being smart is "cool." All this will require transformational change of our entire education system.
Many say that students come to community colleges with no intention to complete a degree or credential. Thus, colleges attempt to excuse themselves from the responsibility of supporting student success and completion. Is it any wonder that, for the first time in the history of the United States, this generation will be less educated than their parents? While it may be true that there is value in completing one class, it is an abdication of responsibility for all associated with the college to not take the time to help students understand the benefits of completing and the consequences of not.
Community colleges must do a better job of talking with students about potential career paths prior to enrollment, rather than simply offering advice on which course sections to take. We must prepare students to become lifelong learners. Thus, certificates earned by students should not be perceived as terminal, but rather stackable, leading to higher certifications and degrees — including applied baccalaureate degrees. And these certificates should equip students with the skills needed for new jobs.
Community colleges must spend more time monitoring and analyzing data reflecting student progress toward student success. They must design new approaches to teaching developmental classes, eliminate late registration, make orientation mandatory, and institute student success courses and first-year experience programs. Incentives need to be provided to colleges to focus on retention and persistence rather increasing enrollment numbers.
Early colleges and dual enrollment programs should be in place in every state where high school dropout rates are persistently high. The reality is that our secondary education institutions are ill-equipped to effect change quickly enough to address soaring drop-out rates. Research has proven that early colleges dramatically increase not only high school graduation rates but also associate degree completion rates. Those earning an associate degree will earn up to $500,000 more over their lifetime than those without a post-secondary credential or degree. And, those earning a degree or certificate are more likely to be hired and less likely to become unemployed than those without.
Finally, more attention must be placed on preparing students for transfer to senior colleges. While completing a baccalaureate degree may not be the aspiration of every student, those with that goal should be provided quality advisement, a clear pathway, and a set of tools to ensure that they will complete on time and with their degree.
Studies show that community college students who transfer to senior colleges prior to earning the associate degree significantly increase their chances of never earning the baccalaureate degree. A recent National Student Clearing House study shows that community college students who transfer to senior college with an associate degree complete their baccalaureate degree 70 percent of the time. In many states, by law, public senior colleges are required to accept all degree credits from students who earn associate degrees. Students who transfer without the associate degree may be required to repeat or take additional classes, resulting in their having to expend more time and more money to complete. Studies show that increasing the time and cost to completion lessens the likelihood of a student ever earning a degree. Finally, associate degree or credential completion provides students with a safety net for those times when unforeseen circumstances occur that derail or delay their long-term goals.
One has to wonder why, when the first community college was established in 1901 to provide access to higher education, that completing college was not seen as integral to college's mission. Today, college completion must be seen as central to the mission of our institutions.
A sea change in philosophy is needed in our community colleges in order to meet the lofty goals of doubling the number of completers by 2020. A culture of completion must span all corridors of our community colleges. All stakeholders must engage — presidents, trustees, faculty, staff, administrators, students, corporate and community leaders — and each must assess their individual efforts in supporting completion. This is a call to action to our community colleges, and our nation's economic prosperity and democracy are hanging in the balance.