Colleges need to focus on sending their students away with degrees instead of spending so much time recruiting and boosting enrollment numbers, argues an open letter released this week from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.
The 32-page letter said colleges need to reform campus culture, cost-effectiveness and quality and their use of data so more of their students receive diplomas and fewer at-risk students walk away with debt instead of opportunity.
"We spend a great deal of time thumping the drum of 'Come to our place,'" E. Gordon Gee, chair of the commission and president of The Ohio State University, told The Huffington Post. Soon, he said, "The completion dean is going to be as important as the admissions dean, and even more so."
The open letter was released just as a new report concluded that 46 percent of America's college students don't graduate college within six years, calling the phenomenon “a dropout crisis” in American colleges and universities.
According to the commission's letter, colleges should better recognize nontraditional students like adult learners and students who are the first in their families to attend universities.
"Who we have in college is different," Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, told HuffPost, "and we have to really rethink our systems and structures."
College dropouts will not only earn less than their counterparts who graduate but also are more likely to default on their student loans, which could cost taxpayers. Lawmakers increasingly insist that appropriating money to educate students who never obtain a degree is a waste of public resources.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who recently floated the idea of tying funding to completion rates, said the state "shouldn't be paying for butts in seats; we should be paying for outcomes." In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) proposed a similar restructuring of appropriations, and said taxpayers "want to get a return" on their money.
As appropriations begin to stabilize or rebound from several years of devastating budget cuts to public universities, many state lawmakers are considering tying an institution's funding to how many students finish their courses and graduate.
Currently, a handful of states award a small portion of their higher education budgets based on what percentage of students complete their studies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tennessee was the first state to fully tie state appropriations to a college's graduation rate. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission considers it successful, but opponents worry that institutions should have the independence to define their own success according to their mission. For instance, community colleges could get shorted considering some students take classes but never plan to receive an associate's degree from their school. It's part of the reason why the plan to reform California's community colleges with a focus on getting students to graduate or transfer, proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), isn't sitting well with some in the Golden State's higher ed community.
Columbia University researchers found performance funding raises college administrators' awareness of their own college's performance, but U.S. News & World Report noted academics fear the quality of universities would be compromised as pressure mounts to improve efficiency. In short: if students can’t meet the bar at rates needed to properly fund a university, the institution will lower it to survive.
Still, George A. Pruitt, vice chair of the commission and president of Thomas Edison State College, said the academe must "not only be open to, but lead self-reform."
"The states must be prepared to reinvest, and federal policy must change, to promote reform and innovation," Pruitt said in a release. "We hope this letter will stimulate a national conversation toward these ends."
CORRECTION, Jan. 30: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Gail O. Mellow, and identified her last name as Miller. It has been updated to correctly identify her.