05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Increase college completion rates: The next step for policymakers

On Tuesday, March 30, the President signed H.R. 4872, The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. This past weekend, in his weekly address, President Obama addressed the two issues that make up this law: health care and higher education:

Education. Health care. Two of the most important pillars of a strong America grew stronger this week. These achievements don't represent the end of our challenges; nor do they signify the end of the work that faces our country. But what they do represent is real and major reform. What they show is that we're a nation still capable of doing big things. What they prove is what's possible when we can come together to overcome the politics of the moment; push back on the special interests; and look beyond the next election to do what's right for the next generation.

These are also the issues on which we spend most of our waking hours working. There's a nexus between the two that extends beyond the reconciliation bill. Health care costs have had an outsize impact on the costs of higher education. As health care costs climbed, support for higher education from state governments has declined. In our first post here at Huffington Post, we encouraged the higher education community to take an active role in the health care debate. That didn't really happen. But, the two issues ended up intertwined in the final package.

As a result of the reconciliation package, vital new dollars will flow to low-income college students attending school on a Pell Grant. The increase is a tribute to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team, as well as to the tenacity of Senate HELP committee chairman Tom Harkin and House Education and the Workforce chairman George Miller.

No doubt, increasing financial aid during a time of high unemployment, stagnant wages and increasing tuition is a necessary step. Hopefully, this will get more people into higher education. Our economic sustainability demands a better educated work force But, it's not enough - especially when the latest attempt to focus some efforts on postsecondary education reform, the reconciliation bill, ended up being one more example of education sacrificing new resources to pay for rising health care costs.

The next step for federal and state policymakers must be to keep our students in school until completion. While lots of people having been talking about such a goal, federal policy needs to start putting its money where its mouth is.

Last year, expert long-time state higher education leader, Gordon Davies, was prescient when he explained the challenge that still lays ahead: increasing completion rates.

Higher education is a national priority and increasing completion rates is an absolute necessity for our economy. The President has issued a challenge to increase graduation rates to unprecedented levels. He's doing his part. Now, the states and higher education have to do their part. It is not an understatement to say that our country's future depends on it.

It's not an understatement. That's why it's also unfortunate that the perception moving forward is that "state policy makers" were viewed as "Losers" in the outcome of the reconciliation package according to Inside Higher Ed.

Unfortunately, it's not state policy makers who lose if we don't deal with "retaining and graduating students." It's our entire economy that suffers. As Anthony P. Carnevale, Research Professor and Director at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said in his testimony before Congress, "Jobs that require at least some postsecondary education will lead the recovery. The future of job growth in the United States is one in which more and more workers will require postsecondary education or training." With or without additional resources, we need higher completion rates. If our institutions of higher education don't retain and graduate students, we won't have the workforce we need in the future.

At this point, everyone involved in higher education, from federal and state policy makers to the leaders of institutions needs to get focused on completion. At the Rethinking Student Aid national forum earlier this month, Michael McPherson, a scholar on student success, former college president and head of the Spencer Foundation, remarked that higher education policymaking at the federal level lags behind other national priorities, such as the K-12 Race to the Top investment and key provisions in the health care legislation, for its lack of attention to evidence about what works, and particularly what works to promote more graduates. We can start with real expectations for completion as a requirement for accessing the $2 billion Congress allocated for job training at the nation's community colleges.

Aside from this one-time investment in job training, significant new additional resources to fund what works in college completion is not likely in the near term. But the federal and state governments spent billions to support public higher education. According to a 2007 report from the Center on Law and Social Policy, the federal government invests $55 in access for every $1 it spends on completion. With this new investment in Pell grants, that disparity will continue to grow. Some of these vital taxpayer dollars need to be reallocated to reward progress in completion.

Reallocating resources towards college completion will mean improving productivity - serving more students, without sacrificing quality. That is no easy task. And, it requires a commitment from the higher education community itself.

What would a more productive higher education system look like? Our campuses are united around undergraduate student success and thriving regional economies. Budgets align with that simple priority. College presidents are amazed and inspired by faculty, who come to work to make sure the flood of new, first-generation and adult students find a sense of place and complete their courses. Legislators and trustees cite like proud first-time parents their campuses' local progress on simple measures like retention. Graduation. Cost per degree.

Moving forward, the goal should be clear: We should be investing our existing tax dollars in students who complete college.

Our future depends on it.