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Wake Up Rip Van Winkle, the College Demographic Revolution Is Upon Us

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About once every decade an education report is released that delivers new information so arresting and critically important to the challenges of its time that it compels action. Complete College America's "Time is the Enemy: the surprising truth about why today's college students aren't graduating," released today as part of NBC's Education Nation, is such a report.

Amid some of the most distressing economic news in history, the report reveals just how extensive America's college dropout problem is among 33 states courageous enough to voluntarily share data. The report finds that the fastest-growing and largest share of college-going students today - those who attend part-time, are older, low-income and non-white - are the least likely to graduate with a degree needed to land the kind of job that provides economic mobility.

We simply are not serving the new majority on campus - the 75 percent of students who are going to school part-time, juggling jobs and commuting to class. The traditional 18-25-year olds living in dorms, going to school full-time with tuition paid for by moms and dads and loans make up a mere 25 percent of the college population, but are earning most of the degrees and certificates.

According to the report, while more than 60 percent of full-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within eight years, only 24 percent of part-time students leave college with the degree they enrolled to get. The odds are particularly bleak for students who are African American, Hispanic, older or poor. Only .1 percent of part-time Hispanic students earn a one-year certificate within 1.5 years and just 16 percent earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

It's little wonder we have these dismal results with a higher education delivery system stuck in a time warp. Like Rip Van Winkle, our nation seems to be sleeping through this demographic revolution, oblivious to what today's college students look like, what is happening with them on campus, and what they need to succeed.

To better serve the new college-going majority, postsecondary institutions must provide shorter, faster and more convenient pathways to degrees and certificates. Courses should be offered at times and places that allow students to maintain a work schedule. Students should be able to work toward degrees more quickly with readily available courses that are offered year-round. The students of the future are having extraordinary success through high-quality online learning, spending significantly less time in the classroom in favor of learning through courses tailored to each student's pace. A McKinsey report recently compared Western Governors University (WGU) students' completion rates broken down by age groups to that of a typical higher education system. Completion rates for students in their 40s were 28 percent higher in WGU's self-paced online learning environment.

With state budgets still reeling from a protracted recession and high unemployment, funding must be targeted to reward degree completion as well as enrollment - setting up incentives for campuses to provide the support students need to finish their degrees. For example, many states higher education systems are closely examining their courses to tune up or eliminate those with low enrollment or completion rates. An extraordinary number of students are swirling in programs with excess credits that don't add up to a degree. Meantime, access to courses that do count toward degrees can be hard to come by.

The Lumina Foundation's report "Navigating the New Normal" estimates that reducing excess credits by 10 percent will yield $8.25 billion (not to mention precious time). In this deficit-cutting environment, these are dollars that can be reinvested to graduate many more students in the future.

Another example of wasted time, money and talent is the more than half of community college freshmen and one-third of university students placed in at least one remedial course that does not count toward a degree. These students start their college career at least four months--and sometimes years-- behind in getting the degree they enrolled to earn. It is estimated that 80 percent of minority students at two-year colleges are enrolled in remedial courses, with only a fraction advancing to courses that count for a degree and an even smaller number persisting to graduate with a degree.

HCM Strategists' recently released "Beating the Odds" report profiles more than 30 colleges and universities that are demonstrating impressive progress in graduating the fastest growing student populations. For example, California State University-Northridge, where nearly half of its student population is underrepresented, has increased its six-year graduation rate from 32 percent in 2003 to 48 percent today by focusing on a combination of strategies to increase completion. The university also closed the graduation rate gap by half and earned national recognition by Education Trust as a "top gap closer" for its efforts to boost completion rates for minorities.

These institutions demonstrate the kind of higher education today and tomorrow's students need.

In 2006 Civic Enterprises' The Silent Epidemic. Perspectives of High School Dropouts report roused governors to adopt a uniform calculation to measure high school dropouts to ensure that all students be kept on track to graduate.

The Complete College America's "Time is the Enemy" report has the same potential to rivet policymaker attention to college graduation rates with the eye-opening information about the new college-going majority.

Called for by the Spellings Commission five years ago, this data is critically important to chart a path towards once again leading the world in the proportion of Americans with a college education and address the gaping gap in skills and credentials needed for the jobs of the future.

The college completion imperative has never been more urgent. As Martin Luther King noted of Rip Van Winkle's slumber, "there is nothing more tragic than sleeping through a revolution." The demographic revolution currently underway in our country can be America's competitive advantage, but only if higher education capitalizes on it.