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May-June 2011

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American Higher Education: “First in the World”

On February 24, 2009, President Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress. It was a little over a month since his inauguration, and just 12 days earlier, he had signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a massive infusion of funds designed to stimulate the troubled United States economy. Before outlining his strategies to restore the nation's economic vitality and ensure the long-term success of our people and our democratic society, the President recalled other times of trial in which Americans had struggled and prevailed.

“History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. … We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril, and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again,” he said.

One of the biggest ideas he introduced that night was this:

We must address … the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America. In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is a pre-requisite. …

That is why it will be the goal of this Administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career. … That is why we will provide the support necessary for [every student] to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Since that day, thousands of college and university presidents, professors, policymakers, and business leaders from across the nation have rallied to the President's ambitious challenge. They have set their sights on ensuring that, within a decade, America will again have “the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world” (President Obama, Diplomatic Reception Room, The White House, April 24, 2009). A variety of states, systems and institutions have already adopted their own college access, quality and completion goals, and hundreds of colleges and universities are working to increase quality and boost the number of college graduates.

The President and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are unflinching in telling the truth about the state of American education. Despite decades of troubling statistics, grim reports, and public unease, and notwithstanding islands of excellence across the country and all along the education pipeline, we Americans have not succeeded in halting our country's partial educational eclipse by industrialized competitors.

Currently, 42 percent of Americans in the 25–34 age range hold a degree from a two- or four-year institution of higher education. At one time, that proportion was high enough to make the United States the best-educated country in the world. But in one generation, our educational attainment has held steady while in other countries it has continued to climb.

We are now tied for ninth in the world, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)'s Education-At-A-Glance: 2010 report (see Chart 1). President Obama has asked our colleges and universities to help the US retake the lead by increasing that figure to 60 percent within the decade.

Caption: Chart 1: Percentage of Adults Age 25–34 with Tertiary Education (Associate Degree or Higher in US, 2008 Current Population Survey, US Census Bureau)

There are signs that we now have the will and the focus to reverse these trends and regain our position of educational leadership in the world. Never before have Americans from all walks of life been more convinced that high-quality advanced education is the key to individual and national success or shared as deep a consensus about the need to build a world-class “cradle-to-career” education system (remarks by President Obama to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, March 10, 2009).

We're Number Nine: The Consequences of Being “Average”

This effort will unfold in the context of an increasingly diverse US population, the most challenging economy since the Great Depression, and a global marketplace where the requirements for both competition and collaboration are greater than ever. The 21st century's hallmarks will be exponential advances in technology, information, and globalization unimaginable to earlier generations—along with an ever-increasing pace of change and the constant creation and application of new knowledge.

The Obama Administration's vision is of a world-class education system for all students, at all levels. Yet a significant gap persists between that vision and today's reality. Currently, 25 percent of American students drop out between the 9th grade and graduation—and almost half of all minorities, most leaving in the first two years of high school (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics).

Research conducted in 2005 by Cecilia Rouse, a professor of economics at Princeton University before she joined the White House Council of Economic Advisors, shows that each of the dropouts costs the nation approximately $260,000 over his or her lifetime. If high schools can't improve their graduation rates, 13 million students will drop out over the next decade. That would amount to a $3 trillion dollar talent loss to the nation every year.

Many reliable indicators show that American schoolchildren aren't keeping up with their international peers. In December 2010, the OECD released the results of its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This system of assessments, given every three years to 15-year-olds in the world's major industrialized countries, is a key benchmark to determine how well we are preparing the next generation for the challenges of the future. The tests measure skills and knowledge, but they also assess the higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital tools in today's information age: the ability to reason, analyze, and communicate.

The data tell us that American students are poorly prepared to compete in the knowledge-based economy. Our scores in science place us 17th among 34 developed countries, edged out by Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and others. Knowing that our students rank “average” in science is hardly comforting in a knowledge economy where innovation and ingenuity are key drivers.

The story is worse in mathematics. On those tests, our 15-year-olds scored below average among developed countries—25th among the 34 countries. The results are no better now than they were in 2003.

As President Obama has said, “The nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow” (White House Summit on Community Colleges, October 5, 2010). In a groundbreaking report in 2009, McKinsey & Company concluded that the gap in performance between American students and those in top-performing nations was hurting our economic health. In fact, McKinsey calculated that the impact of that gap on the country's Gross Domestic Product was greater than the effect of the current recession. Without change, McKinsey concluded, we risk “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession” (McKinsey & Company, April 2009).

Reflecting on the PISA results released last year, Secretary Duncan said: “I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better. …The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated” (remarks at OECD's release of the PISA 2009 results, December 7, 2010).

The biggest challenge for our schools and postsecondary institutions is to ensure that America's students receive a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in and complete college (see Chart 2) or at least one year of postsecondary training beyond high school. Yet today, of the students who do graduate from high school and begin attending a four-year public college or university, only about 55 percent receive a bachelor's degree within six years (those who begin at a private four-year college or university fare somewhat better, with a graduation rate of 61 percent within six years). At public two-year colleges, only about 21 percent receive a degree or certificate within three years.

Caption: Chart 2 – Leaks in the Education Pipeline

Insufficient Skills, Unfilled Jobs

Today millions of jobs go unfilled each year for lack of a well-trained workforce. In July, the International Monetary Fund completed a study of the discrepancy between the skills employers need and those that job candidates possess. The study found that skill mismatches have risen sharply during the current recession, with considerable variability across the states. Mismatches are now near or at historical highs in many states, especially those with large manufacturing sectors (International Monetary Fund, Country Report No. 10/248, 2010).

Similarly, a recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics report considered job openings and labor turnover. It found that the education and health service sectors had a high job-openings rate and relatively low hire rates in October, indicating that the needed employees were not hired.

Professional and business services and accommodation and food services each had a high job-openings rate and relatively high hires rate in October, indicating that despite strong hiring, even more employees were needed (US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010).

Caption: Chart 3 Job openings rates, hires rates, and employment by select industries October 2010, seasonally adjusted

This may be due in part to the fact that too many of our high school graduates simply aren't ready for college-level work and need significant remedial education. But there is little evidence that remediation helps students succeed in their other classes, and many students never complete their remedial sequences. In the Foothill-De Anza Community College District where I served, about 15 percent of the curriculum was devoted to non-college-level remedial courses in language arts and mathematics, a percentage not uncommon in America's community colleges since four-year colleges and universities have become more selective or redirected underprepared students to the two-year sector over the past two decades. According to the most recent National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, 38 percent of first- and second-year undergraduates have enrolled in one or more remedial courses.

Given today's realities, rising from the middle of the pack to meet the President's 2020 goal won't be easy. In addition to transforming our pre-K-12 system by turning around low-performing schools; raising standards; and closing the achievement gap among students of different backgrounds, races, and income levels, we'll need to produce an estimated eight million more new college graduates over and above our current growth rate to regain our position as first in the world in college graduates by 2020.

The urgent need for our nation's students to secure postsecondary knowledge, skills, and degrees is clear. Since 1973, the share of jobs in this country requiring postsecondary education has increased from 28 percent to 59 percent. That figure will climb in the next decade (Carnevale, 2008). According to a study done last spring by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, an individual with only a high school degree will be shut out of nearly two out of every three jobs by 2018. As many as 60 million Americans will lack the skills and credentials to join the knowledge economy, and our most innovative, entrepreneurial companies – those we count on to keep us competitive in the global economy—will be starved for human capital (Carnevale et al. 2010).

For example, the health care and education sectors of the economy—as well as the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—will grow the fastest over the next eight years. Yet these are fields whose lifeblood is a steady supply of knowledge workers with postsecondary degrees. In health care, 2.8 million professional and technician positions will become available in the years ahead, and 95 percent of those jobs will require employees to have at least some college education. Similarly, the Georgetown Center expects the STEM sector to spin off 8.6 million new jobs by 2018, more than two-thirds of which will require workers with at least a bachelor's degree.

To realize our “cradle-to-career” vision and achieve the President's 2020 goal, we must not only raise academic standards, dramatically improve teacher pre-professional and professional development, implement more rigorous evaluations of students and teachers, modernize our testing systems while reducing the time students spend taking tests to give them more time to learn, and dramatically engage far more parents in the education of their children. In concert with our pre-K-12 agenda, we must simultaneously re-engineer adult learning.

The US Department of Education projects that about two-thirds of our nation's college completion goal will come from students who don't enter higher education directly from high school. Many will be adult learners who have had some college experience but never earned a certificate or a degree. Others will be the dropouts or the “stop-start-stop-start” students who realize their options will be limited without education beyond high school.

We have to generate new college graduates from older students, career changers, students who enrolled in college and then left before attaining a degree, and the unemployed. We have to reach out to people who might never have considered higher education a few years ago.

Far too many adults lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to succeed in the knowledge economy: 93 million have literacy levels characterized as basic (meaning they have difficulty understanding a newspaper article well enough to answer simple questions about it) or below (National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2002).We have a moral obligation and an economic imperative to educate these individuals. Adult education programs across the nation serve only 3 percent of the need. Our country cannot afford to have 40 percent of adults unprepared for America's middle-class jobs.

We must also create a 21st-century R&D effort to improve not only K-12 but undergraduate learning. A recent study of 2,300 undergraduates attending 24 four-year institutions found that 45 percent of freshmen and sophomores showed little gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing. As disturbing, half of the students reported that their courses required 20 pages or less of writing and less than 40 pages of reading a week (Social Science Research Council, January 2011). [Editor's note: see the Roska and Arum article in the March/April issue of Change for a description of this research.]

President Obama and Secretary Duncan recognize that educational quality and equity are essential to our economic and social prosperity. They also see education as the civil-rights issue of our generation. It is the most reliable path out of poverty for millions of youth and adults.

Education beyond high school plays a pivotal role as America's economic engine. And the “career” end of the “cradle-to-career” continuum must include all of postsecondary education: public and private four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, career schools, and technology centers—in short, institutions offering one-year postsecondary certificates, two-year associate degrees, and baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral degrees. Our completion problem affects every segment of our educational pipeline. The Commission on the Future of Graduate Schools' Path Forward report released in April 2010 said that half of US master's and doctoral students fail to graduate from their programs.

From Risk to Resurgence

While the statistics may be complicated, their message is unequivocal. Not enough of our students are graduating from high school. Not enough high school graduates and adult learners are enrolling in college or postsecondary training. And not enough are finishing their college and university programs. As Chart 2 showed, it's simply taking too long, and we're losing too many students along the way.

President Obama recognizes the 2020 college completion goal is ambitious. But the Administration is convinced this aspirational goal is both possible to reach and critical for America's future. It is a work of national significance to be pursued in the 21st century with the same passion and focus as the 20th century space race. As the President said, this is the new “Sputnik moment” (Forsyth Technical Community College, December 6, 2010).

We believe that increasing postsecondary access, improving quality, and accelerating college completion is the formula to help us meet the President's 2020 goal. We also believe that these unprecedented challenges and changes point the way to a new federal role. Secretary Duncan has challenged his team to transform the US Department of Education from a compliance-driven bureaucracy into an engine that supports state and local innovations that result in higher levels of student achievement than ever before.

At the federal level, we aim to galvanize stakeholders and consortia across the nation to boost college affordability and access, while at the same time improving quality, productivity, and completion. With incentives and support from the federal government, states, philanthropies, and other stakeholders, America's higher education community has the opportunity to actively and radically reshape postsecondary education for the 21st century.

These stakeholders are already responding with various combinations of innovation and productivity strategies to increase college and university quality and completion. Our common goal is to identify and scale up the high-impact practices that enable Americans to secure high-quality college degrees and certificates in shorter time frames (George D. Kuh, 2008).

Levers of Change

We must identify and showcase the nation's best courses and programs while significantly improving quality assurance because students should have an education that prepares them well for the workforce and society. We must also help students stay on track to finish their education with the degrees and credentials that will support their aspirations.

Increasing college completion requires students, postsecondary institutions, and states to apply various levers to encourage the improvement of access, quality, and completion rates. At the federal level, those levers are likely to be a combination of new laws, reauthorizations, and regulations, along with a smarter use of existing administrative authorities, the “bully pulpit,” accountability and compliance measures, funding, transparency, and social media. The US Department of Education's goal is to apply these levers strategically to support the work of schools, colleges, communities, and states in order to increase student achievement and make significant strides toward the 2020 goal every year.

Examples of our efforts to align legislation, funding, technical assistance, and accountability with our educational objectives have already ranged from the targeted education investments made through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3), to a re-invigorated Office for Civil Rights, to competitive priorities designed to fuel the types of innovations that increase student achievement and postsecondary success.

As institutions and states work to reshape higher education, the federal government is well positioned to:

  • Support the adoption of postsecondary education goals, plans and expected outcomes in every state and institution;

  • Provide incentives for states and institutions to innovate, study, and share what works in expanding access, improving educational quality and completion, increasing productivity, and reducing cost;
  • Simplify reporting requirements and reduce or eliminate unnecessarily excessive administrative burdens;
  • Sustain America's historic postsecondary priorities of public higher education, accessible and affordable federal student aid, and the great diversity of our nation's institutions;
  • Support targeted investments to accelerate educational achievement and close achievement gaps, especially for low-income students throughout the educational system; and
  • Collaborate with institutions, state government, business, unions, regional and local partners, and other federal agencies to increase educational opportunity and success for all Americans.

An avalanche of pent-up reform activity has been sweeping across the country over the past two years. The Secretary calls this the “Quiet Revolution,” which has been seen in improvements to postsecondary access, quality, and completion.

Propelling the Nation's Access, Quality, and Completion Agenda

Access and Affordability

America's higher education institutions are confronting spiraling costs and plummeting budgets. Even as enrollments increase, most colleges and universities are under unprecedented pressure to reduce costs. State funding for higher education faces dramatic cuts, and many university endowments have decreased in value.

According to the 2008 Measuring Up, the national report card on higher education, between 1982 and 2006 the cost of higher education in the US grew by 439 percent, more than four times the rise in the consumer price index over the same period (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2008). We cannot increase access to higher education unless we keep tuition affordable for people of all income levels.

In response, Congress and the Obama Administration have made the biggest investment in federal student aid since the G.I. Bill. When Congress passed and President Obama signed the 2010 Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, they approved our plan to implement direct lending, saving more than $68 billion dollars over the next decade by ending bank subsidies for student higher education loans. They chose to invest the majority of those savings in students (see Chart 4). The largest investment is providing $36 billion for Pell Grants over the next ten years. Overall, the amount of federal aid available to students has doubled since the President took office. Then, 6 million students were able to enroll in college due to Pell grants; today more than 8 million Pell recipients are enjoying college opportunities. In February 2010, President Obama introduced the Pell Grant Protection Act to sustain the promise of a college education to even the most economically disadvantaged students in our nation.

Caption: Chart 4 – Access and Affordability Pell Recipients

We've also streamlined how students can apply for federal aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—a move that helped increase the number of applicants for aid by 19 percent last year, with a net increase of 12 percent more students from low-income families who enrolled in the nation's 6,000 colleges and universities last fall (Chart 5). We also dramatically simplified the FAFSA bureaucracy by reducing the questions on the form for which the government already had the information. And further FAFSA simplification efforts will continue as we identify evermore efficient ways to deliver student federal aid via technology.

Caption: Chart 5 – Access and Affordability FAFSA Applications

The Reconciliation Act also provided $2.55 billion dollars in mandatory funding over 10 years to increase the capacity of minority-serving institutions to educate more students and $2 billion dollars over four years for community colleges to increase access, quality, and completion. And states are receiving $750 million over the next five years, more than double the current funding, for College Access Challenge Grants to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college and better manage their student loans.

In February, President Obama released his fiscal 2012 budget. To promote access, the President continued his commitment to Pell Grants. In recent years, the number of Pell recipients has risen dramatically—from 6 million to 9.6 million—for an estimated $20 billion shortfall in funding for the program. Nevertheless, the President plans to sustain the maximum grant at $5,550. He proposes to save money in other ways, chiefly by eliminating in-school subsidies on federal loans to graduate students and ending a relatively new provision that allows students to use two Pell Grants in one year.

The President proposed these and other significant investments in education because he recognizes that they are vital if America is going to remain competitive. But the total budget reflects as well a number of difficult decisions that he has made to address the deficit. President Obama and Secretary Duncan look forward to working with Congress to reduce it in a responsible way while, at the same time, making the investments in education that are critical to our nation's future.

Meanwhile, states and institutions are exploring ways to mitigate dramatic tuition hikes, from tuition and net-price freezes to tuition locks for student cohorts to indexing tuition to inflation. And a variety of institutions and systems—including Cornell University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of California system—are implementing innovative management and administrative efficiencies to reduce expenses and centralize, streamline, and share costs and functions. These efforts model ways that higher education can control costs and increase productivity without sacrificing instructional quality.

The time it can take to earn a degree makes college more expensive for students, families, institutions and states, and it threatens our completion agenda. We need to ensure smoother, clearly articulated transitions at all stages of the education pipeline and identify and invest in strategies to promote on-time and accelerated degree attainment while maintaining educational quality.

For example, since today about 44.5 percent of all community college students are not prepared for general education or career-technical coursework, we need research on and dramatic improvement in remedial education. We need, and do not currently have, evidence-based, world-class models for remedial courses that bring students from basic to college-level literacy in a fixed amount of time. Transforming our pre-K-12 system, lowering the drop-out rate, and turning around our nation's lowest-performing schools will ultimately help our students and our colleges get out of most of the catch-up business. But for now, we must perfect the science of catching up for those students who need this help.

Our goal is to work with scholars and practitioners to identify the most effective fast-track developmental programs that result in students completing freshman composition and calculus or statistics. College English and mathematics remain the gatekeeper courses to the associate and baccalaureate degrees. When we can share these models and replicate their results more widely, we will be on our way to increasing both productivity and completion. 

Accelerating Remediation

Community College of Baltimore County's Accelerated Learning Project (ALP): Upper-level developmental-education English students are included in English 101 and take a companion class taught by an English 101 instructor. As a result, ALP students are significantly more likely to pass English 101 and English 103 than non-ALP students. ALP is a more cost-effective route to passing English 102 – $2,680 vs. $3,122 (Chart 6).

Caption: Chart 6 Community College of Baltimore County Accelerated Learning Project (ALP) Outcomes: Passed ENG 101 (not attempted within 1 year = not passed)

Washington Community and Technical College System's Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST): The program offers college-level occupational courses team-taught by basic-skills and professional/technical teachers. As a result of this customized, learner-focused instruction, 51 percent of I-BEST students completed a certificate in two years, vs. 14 percent of the comparison group (Chart 7).

Caption: Chart 7 Washington Community & Technical Colleges I-BEST* and Propensity–Score–Matched Students

Quality, Productivity, and Completion

Beyond our commitment to access and affordability, the centerpiece of our higher education agenda is college completion. We recognize that improvements in the national completion rate are inseparable from improvements in access, quality, and productivity. And here, too, we are using legislative and funding levers to help colleges and universities improve the quality of America's undergraduate and graduate programs.

President Obama has asked the nation's community colleges to graduate or transfer about five million more students between now and 2020. Community colleges are often called the unsung heroes of the nation's education system. As the most affordable higher education sector, they are the gateway to higher education for millions of students. Community and career-technical colleges help students increase their knowledge and skills in pursuing associate, baccalaureate, and graduate degrees. Their certificate and degree programs also help students advance in their careers or change careers as economic conditions warrant.

Nearly half of all undergraduates get their start in a community college, including roughly half of all first-generation and minority students. In some states, more than two-thirds of first-generation and minority students start at a community college. As Jill Biden, a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, has said, “No other system of higher education in the world does more to open doors for those who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford postsecondary education. No other system offers second-chance opportunities to those who need to improve their job skills and employment possibilities” (White House Community College summit, October 5, 2010). In this, the US is the envy of many countries, and we need to build on this strength.

This year, we have Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants to significantly increase educational attainment and employment outcomes in community colleges. These grants will be administered by the US Department of Labor, in partnership with the US Department of Education. They will be competitively bid and amount to $2 billion in funding over the next four years. This is an unprecedented opportunity for community colleges to develop programs that increase the number of degrees and certificates and the employability of students.

The program is designed to meet industry needs while accelerating individual learning and improving college retention and achievement. The grants will encourage innovative two- and four-year partnerships, collaborations with business, and dramatic redesigns of programs and services to strengthen the bridge from adult education to higher education and the workforce—especially for low-skilled adults.

These new grants may also fund consortia of eligible institutions of higher education and their partners, working together across an entire community, region, state, or industry sector. These consortia will use their collective experience to expand and improve their capacity to deliver education and career-training programs that result in more students graduating from two- and four-year institutions or earning one-year certificates and securing the jobs that are central to America's economic recovery.

To further advance college completion, the President's fiscal 2012 budget includes $1.25 billion over the next five years for states to reward institutions that are leading the way in college completion. In fiscal 2012, the budget provides $123 million for the First in the World competition that will provide venture capital to create innovative ways to improve degree attainment and promote efficiency in higher education. This fund will reward promising ideas and successful programs from states, institutions, nonprofits, and others committed to improving college completion numbers and rates across the nation.

Our completion agenda embraces all of America's learners. Nationally, our college-going rates are rising, but a completion gap persists among minority groups. African-American students earn bachelors' degrees at half (18 percent)—and Hispanics at one-third (11 percent)—the rate of Caucasian students (34 percent). Low-income students earn baccalaureate degrees at one-eighth the rate of their more advantaged counterparts (9 percent vs. 75 percent by age 24). In 21st-century America, we must disprove the myth that race and poverty are destiny (Susan P. Choy, 2004).

Some colleges have already achieved this aim. The Education Trust's 2010 reports Top Gainers and Top Gap Closers highlight public institutions nationwide that have made the biggest improvements in narrowing or closing the achievement gap, including several where completion rates for minority students exceed those of their Caucasian peers. The accomplishments of these institutions are examples for the nation. If closing the completion gap is possible in institutions in Maryland, Florida, or California, it can and should be a goal all across America.

A number of national foundations are assisting colleges and universities and professional associations with plans to set and meet college-completion benchmarks, including slashing the college-going and graduation gaps for low-income and minority students.

At the same time, we are seeing colleges and universities implement promising approaches to improving the quality of their courses, pedagogies, and delivery systems—from boosting student performance and success to enhancing quality-assurance and compliance processes, from being more transparent about higher education costs and outcomes to using technology and innovative instructional models, from lowering costs to increasing completion rates.

As we look ahead, we are excited that President Obama has proposed significant new competitive incentive funding for college completion efforts that will enable institutions and states to drive dramatic reforms to meet the 2020 goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Accelerating Completion: CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP)

Launched in 2007, this experimental City University of New York program designed to graduate community college students surpassed its goal of graduating at least half of its initial 1,000-student cohort in three years. City and university leaders gathered this summer to celebrate the 55 percent graduation rate achieved by the program. The ASAP Program brings together a set of comprehensive services and incentives that have been identified as being helpful to improving the retention, performance, and graduation rates of community college students. Financial incentives include free tuition for aid-eligible students, monthly Metrocards, and textbooks. Key program elements include required full-time study, a consolidated course schedule, cohort groups by majors, small class size, comprehensive academic and career-development advisement services delivered by full-time ASAP staff, and a range of special programs.

The results: Three-year graduation rates were 54.9 percent for ASAP students vs. 24.1 percent for the comparison group (City University of New York, Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2010).

Caption: Chart 8 CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) 3-Year Graduation Rate

Partnerships and Collective Action

At the US Department of Education, we are also thinking hard about the next steps we can take, as a nation, to improve quality by reforming structures that reward institutions and students for hours in class as opposed to what is learned, by examining degree qualifications frameworks, and by modernizing accreditation processes for colleges and universities. We can no longer be content with models of accreditation that dictate process, inputs, and governance structures instead of results, innovation, and evidence.

Ultimately, we need institutions, states, organizations, and the federal government to drive quality improvements with better research and targeted investments in promising programs. We must do this in order to enable significantly more students to achieve the learning outcomes that result in degrees and certificates and an increased participation in work and civic life. We must also improve quality assurance by clarifying the often overlapping and confusing roles and responsibilities of the federal government, accreditors, states, and institutions. And we need increased transparency and well-understood accountability measures that explain how our students and institutions are doing.

The Department of Education also wants to leverage communication, transparency, and technical assistance to support new partnerships among education, business, unions, and government and community organizations and to help states and institutions share and adopt high-impact practices. We're joined in this effort by a growing number of state-based efforts and foundation-funded consortia.

Many states and institutions have begun to set completion targets and to report regularly on the progress they are making toward their goals. The best of these plans feature associate and baccalaureate completion, as well as transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities—as opposed to just enrollment—as key metrics of higher education's success in meeting the needs of students. But more work needs to be done.

At the federal level, we will help support the development of statewide and institutional degree- and certificate-completion metrics, the tracking of progress, the improvement and interoperability of data systems, the reporting of annual and longitudinal data, and the identification of new opportunities and challenges along the way.

Imagine if every student, professor, dean, and president of our nation's postsecondary institutions focused on completion and knew precisely what it would take to contribute to and advance toward the 2020 goal.

Imagine if every state in the nation focused on the annual increase in degree completion it needed to achieve to meet the 2020 goal and was devoting energy and resources to that end. We could then, as a nation, move from risk to resurgence.

To date, 29 states have joined the Complete College America Alliance of States, a non-profit devoted to reaching the 2020 goal. Leaders from these states have pledged to make college completion an institutional and legislative priority and to share with each other and with the US Department of Education the most effective completion models and strategies from across the country.

State-level performance-based funding

Tennessee has found that a small amount of funds (5 percent of the budget) has a large impact: all institutions there show positive learning gains (Tennessee began performance funding in the early 1980s).

Florida's community colleges increased enrollments by 18 percent and degrees and certificates by 43 percent from 1996 to 2007 (performance funding began in 1997).

Ohio's performance funding of graduates decreased the median time to degree for baccalaureates from 4.7 years in FY 1999 to 4.3 years in FY 2003, where it stayed through 2007 (performance funding began there in 1998).

The Lumina Foundation for Education, 2009.

Similarly, the Education Trust has brought together university presidents and academic leaders from ten large public systems of higher education, again for the purpose of sharing data and models to increase college completion and close achievement gaps.

Performance-based funding is also re-emerging as a promising means to shorten time-to-degree. Through MDRC's Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration, for instance, more than 5,600 low-income students are receiving performance-based scholarships at two- and four-year institutions in six states, funded by a wide-ranging combination of public sector and nonprofit partners.

Pooling ideas and resources can have a powerful regional effect. Twelve states in the Midwest have banded together to both reduce costs and increase opportunities for students. Under the umbrella of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, public universities in these states collectively purchase many big-ticket items—including property insurance, energy, and healthcare—for which a large pool of buyers can be leveraged to lower costs. States in the Compact have saved millions of dollars. Students are also saving money, thanks to a tuition-reciprocity agreement that allows them to attend a compact school out of their state at reduced rates.

This year, the Lumina Foundation's National Productivity Conference spotlighted a number of other innovative partnerships, including Indiana's with the nonprofit Western Governors University to increase online, competency-based courses and the University of Akron with Lorain County Community College to create an independent center that will share human resources management, payroll, and other business services. The last of those could lead to a statewide sharing of services among public and private colleges alike, potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars that could be redirected to academic purposes.

There are a host of promising models on which to build, including opportunities to design 21st-century approaches to teaching and learning that make effective use of technology.

The Technology Factor

The US Department of Education recently issued a national education technology plan that will help leverage technology's power to improve learning. Technology has the potential to make the learning process more engaging and better tailored to students' individual needs and interests, as well as to help them develop the flexibility, creativity, and independent agency they will need as 21st century knowledge workers. Citizens of today and tomorrow must become lifelong learners who are information literate and technologically proficient.

Interesting models range from Penn State University's online “World Campus” to the University of Massachusetts' “UMassOnline” system, which enrolls some 50,000 students and brought the university a $56.2 million revenue stream last year.

Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is a web-based learning environment that complements face-to-face instruction, tracks student progress, and provides virtual tutors for students. The courseware helps assess what content students are mastering and where they are struggling, and it lets professors tailor lectures and instruction accordingly. [Editor's note: see the article by Candace Thille on the OLI in the March/April 2011 issue of Change.]

As Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon says, “OLI is an example of what Carnegie Mellon does best: linking different disciplines—in this case, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, design and computer science—to have an impact on solving difficult problems” (

The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), led by Carol Twigg, has demonstrated that many courses can be redesigned to lower cost while also boosting learning and completion rates. She suggests that cost-effectiveness can increase by redesigning the 25 most common quantitative, science, social science, and humanities courses that make up half of community college enrollment and more than a third of four-year college enrollment. [Editor's note: see the article about NCAT by Carol Twigg in this issue.]

What the Future May Hold

Christopher Edley, Jr., dean of the University of California (UC) Berkeley law school and co-chair of the education and curriculum working group for the UC system's Commission on the Future, proposes expanding UC's online offerings in ways that may one day include fully online bachelor's degree programs. He wrote in an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle: “Our purpose is to advance knowledge while democratizing excellence. To do that, we must innovate.”

He outlined the UC System's vision for online instruction:

  • Online instruction offers UC credit, meets the same academic standards, and has the same faculty as on-campus courses.

  • It offers students instruction anywhere, anytime, through Web-based multimedia learning.
  • This instruction is “high touch”: its teaching assistants lead online chats and monitor discussion boards, as well as desktop webinars and video conferences, and its instructors hold office hours.
  • It tracks student progress through tests, papers, video productions, tutorials, and graded discussion groups.
  • It protects against cheating, using proctored exam sites.
  • The courses are developed by UC professors, with the assistance of technology experts, to ensure that they offer the same high-quality instruction as on-campus classes.

In the UC Berkeley pilot, a team of professors and course designers will move 25 to 40 entry-level courses from the classroom to the Web in an effort to assess the “effectiveness, cost, and sustainability of online education.”

Currently, the failure rates in these entry-level core courses range from 15 percent at research universities to as high as 60 percent at community colleges, and they significantly influence the dropout rate in students' first and second years. Making these lecture-based courses into technology-enabled ones enables institutions to offer continuous assessment and on-demand tutoring online and from undergraduate learning assistants while lowering tuition, increasing quality, and accelerating course and ultimately degree completion for ever-greater numbers of America's increasingly diverse students.

“America Can Do It” – Driving Together Toward the 2020 Goal

Nearly 30 years ago, the seminal 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform sounded its now-famous alarm about the condition of education in the United States. We must admit that our nation is at greater risk now, in the 21st century, than when the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its findings in the last century.

Today, America's local, state, and national higher education stakeholders are just beginning to develop the traction we need to achieve the 2020 goal by dramatically improving higher education access, quality, and completion. And we've just started to identify models that keep college tuition in reach of the middle class and increase productivity while reducing costs. But the need for more research and development in education is critical, because we now have a tangible goal, a concrete timeframe in which to achieve it, and many promising models on which to build. In my two years as Under Secretary, I have traveled the country extensively and met with a wide range of education stakeholders and partners. I sense a renewed spirit of innovation and a new resolve to collaborate and change as our nation wends its way out of the recession.

For this reason, I am reiterating a phrase that headed one of the closing sections of A Nation at Risk: “America can do it.” These words are no less true today, though years have passed since they were printed. If we act now, and act boldly, America can still do it, despite decades of discouragement and deferral. The federal government can help states and institutions articulate common definitions of and strategies for success and then align government policies, programs, funds, oversight, reporting, communications, and assistance in support of these shared goals. Using the proper levers at the national level, we will contribute to the growing climate of innovation and change that will bring our nation to first in the world once again by the year 2020!



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Martha Kanter ( has served as the United States Under Secretary of Education since June 2009. In this capacity Kanter oversees policies, programs, and activities related to postsecondary education, career-technical and adult education, and federal student aid. She has extensive experience in both teaching and administration and has served as a board member and advisor to a variety of national, state, and local organizations. Before joining the US Department of Education, Kanter served as chancellor of California's Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which serves more than 45,000 students. Melissa Apostolides and Jon O'Bergh of the US Department of Education contributed to this article.

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