Postsecondary Trending Now: The State of the Completion Agenda

Simply focusing on increasing quantity without keeping a close eye on ensuring quality spells out trouble in all kinds of situations. Academic experiences shouldn’t be excluded from that assumption.

Within the college access movement, for example, this has proved to be the case. While the movement may have sent more people to college, it didn’t always result in a better outcome for everyone who went to college. At times, it actually caused harm when a student left with no degree or job prospects but still carried student debt. After outcries for improving the level of student preparation in high school, higher education responded with its own robust college completion agenda.

Completion Agenda Goals

  • The Lumina Foundation centers its philanthropy around a goal that by the year 2025, 60 percent of the nation’s adults will have a college credential.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama set a goal that by the year 2020, the United States would lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates.
  • Tennessee is a leader among all 50 states with its “Drive to 55” goal that by the year 2025, 55 percent of its citizens will possess either a postsecondary certificate or college degree.

Completion Agenda Status Update

In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, “Completion and the Value of College,” Paul Fain takes a look at where the movement to improve college completion currently sits, and where it might go in the future. He asked 20 experts for insight.

Here are just a few trends they cited:

  • Defining which credentials have merit when counting the actual number of college graduates is changing. Over time, for example, there’s been a greater emphasis on community college certificates and associate degrees.
  • More colleges now view completion as an embedded part of their mission and take direct responsibility for students’ success in ways that weren’t part of past higher ed culture. There’s a healthy fear, however, that overemphasis on completion may have a negative effect on access, and wind up becoming a perverse disincentive for quality. This is a matter of finances as much as motivation to support the highest priority.
  • Although completion has gained traction, documenting outcomes has remained elusive and performance-based funding has had mixed uptake.
  • The increasing costs of college, increasing debt, and decreasing public perception of the value of college is reducing support for the completion agenda. This is in spite of continued evidence that those with college degrees continue to earn more than those who don’t.
  • The completion agenda is starting to expand to include retention, skill attainment, gainful employment, and student loan repayment, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between academia and the ‘real world’ of work.
  • A heavy emphasis on jobs—especially a possible infrastructure rebuilding effort by the incoming president’s administration—could shift the political conversation about completion toward high school diplomas over college credentials. Dual enrollment would be a strong link between a high school jobs-training agenda and higher ed.
  • Free college for all won’t likely be a federal priority in the next administration, but has made strides in states like Tennessee, which now talks about a K-14 system where associate’s degrees and certificates could be part of an integrated curriculum.
  • Alternative pathways that may get more attention within the completion agenda moving forward include career and technical education, degree pathways programs, non-traditional providers, workforce credentials, and competency-based education.



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