The College Completion Imperative: Public Higher Ed Steps Up

Public higher education has a long and proud tradition, beginning with its emergence in America in the late 18th century, to the democratization of higher education, beginning with the Morrill Act of 1862. For nearly two centuries, access and opportunity have been the cornerstones of public higher education. But in today's world, our focus has changed to include success.

Since the mid-1980s, America's educational attainment has continued to decline in comparison with other advanced economies. At the White House Opportunity Summit, held last week in Washington D.C., the central question was this: How do we increase the number of graduates to bring the United States back on educational par with other nations? A college education remains the single most important driver of opportunity and economic growth for individuals, communities and the nation; it benefits both individuals and society at-large economically, socially and culturally; and it makes the United States stronger and more globally competitive.

Leading up to the summit, the White House sought pledges and commitments from institutions and organizations on ways they would strengthen student success. Given our historical missions and the public purpose of public higher education, it was a natural for three public college and university associations to step up and form a collaboration to increase certificate and degree completion levels.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) made a formal commitment to facilitate and accelerate efforts to reach crucial national educational attainment goals. Our three associations have more than 1,500 member institutions that educate nearly three-quarters of all college students in America. It stands to reason then that collectively, we can better assist our institutions in tackling obstacles that impede students from earning a degree or certificate in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

Public higher education needs to look at critical issues related to educational attainment, particularly for low-income, minority and adult students. There are several steps we can take. We need to improve access and opportunity by building clear educational and career pathways. This means we must ensure better alignment among three groups: the kindergarten through high school sector, community colleges, and state universities. This will be especially important in the STEM fields and should also take into consideration local and national workforce needs.

A frequent impediment for students has been moving from one sector to another, i.e., transferring from a community college to a four-year institution. We need to focus on creating seamless transitions by improving student advising and developing agreements that improve transfer of credits. Public higher education must take a hard look at their enrollment and financial aid policies and consider innovative ways to support successful student transfer and subsequent degree attainment.

Accountability is a hallmark of public higher education. In our commitment to student success, we will need more accurate and comprehensive measures of student progress--both as a yardstick for institutional improvement and to assure external accountability.

Addressing these issues with association support will more effectively position public colleges and universities to build networks, share ideas, and evaluate promising practices. Educational attainment and degree completion have never been more critical to the future of America. Public higher education is stepping up, reinforcing its pivotal role in student access, opportunity and success.