College Completion Takes Well-Planned Action

Predictions for the future include worker shortages, widening socioeconomic gaps, and the need for increased college completion. These three topics are closely related. Increased college completion could help solve the worker shortage and help close gaps between social and economic groups.

However, increasing college completion takes well-planned action.

There is no doubt the number of students completing higher education needs to increase. The US will face a shortage of five million graduates by 2020 and enrollment numbers are declining. This makes it all the more important that students who are in school and those who choose to go back to school are successful in their completion. Policy groups help define student needs, higher education institutions are developing plans that can raise student completion, and employer tuition assistance plans can be significant in completion improvement.

Innovative programs are helping to meet student needs and keep students on track for graduation. Using data to track student progress, then applying predictive analytics and proactive advising, helps with student retention. Identifying students who need academic support early can mean the difference between success in a program and failure in a class preventing future enrollment. Semester to semester enrollment helps students move quickly toward program completion. Advising programs that help students identify majors streamlines their programs and keeps students on a more direct path toward their end-goal.

Combined Efforts

In 2014 the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of schools, formed to work together to increase college completion. The UIA schools are making progress towards that goal. Since 2014 the 11 colleges in the consortium have produced 25 percent more low-income graduates per year, adding an addition 6,000 additional graduates each year. The UIA schools project they will graduate an additional 100,000 students by 2025.

Increasing the number of low-income graduates is important to the individual graduates, and it is also crucial to increasing the number of graduates and decreasing the socioeconomic gaps and worker shortages in the country. UIA executive director Bridget Burns says, “When the power of predictive analytics and other best practices are implemented broadly across Alliance campuses, we expect the gains to be even greater. If all other four-year public colleges and universities in the U.S. increased their graduation rates at the UIA’s pace over the next decade, we would add 1.3 million college graduates to the workforce.”

Helping students develop a sense of belonging in school is something that can help improve retention and completion. But a sense of belonging at a school is often difficult for students who work full-time and attend school part-time. Employers can help create a sense of connectedness to higher education and encourage completion through their tuition assistance programs. Recognizing their employees’ academic achievements and creating opportunities for application of their knowledge and career advancement encourages employees to persist in their education.

This year the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) created the Center for Public University Transformation to help universities create solutions to increase student completion. The APLU center is beginning with 100 universities in 10 “transformation clusters” that work on issues such as proactive advising, adaptive courses and materials and completion-focused financial aid. The goal is that all higher education institutions will be able to implement practices that “drive progress toward equity and college completion.”

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) recognizes that completion is difficult for adult students who are independent. IWPR research shows that only one in three independent students completes higher education compared to more than half of students who depend on their parents for support. Seventy-two percent of student parents and 65 percent of independent students without children have unmet financial need, even with all financial aid. “In 2011-12, independent nonparents had an average unmet need of nearly $5,011, and student parents’ unmet need averaged roughly $5,600.” Employer tuition assistance is an important resource for meeting this unmet financial need of independent working students.

Efforts to increase completion from schools, policy institutes and employers provide the opportunity for increased completion which will benefit all stakeholders. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research states in a briefing paper, “Supporting the postsecondary success of independent students can also improve the economy by helping to meet employer demand for skilled workers and promoting family economic security.”