02/01/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Why Student Success Is Critical to America

Student access continues as a high priority in American higher education. But it now has a twin goal: student success.

For several decades, a cadre of dedicated and passionate educational researchers developed and presented data at conferences that indicated reasons for concern about high attrition rates. Three of many examples are "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education"; "How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research"; and "One Step From the Finish Line: Higher Graduation Rates are Within our Reach." They received polite attention and warm applause, but only a few colleges and universities made concerted, institution-wide efforts at improving their graduation rates. With institutional reward systems based on total enrollments and a ready supply of replacements for dropouts at hand, an easier choice for administrators was to crank up the marketing and recruiting machine rather than to institute expensive and often slow reforms of the curriculum and support services. Fewer than one-third of degree-seeking, full-time freshmen in public four-year institutions graduate in four years and less than 60 percent finish in six years from the institution where they started their higher education. While these statistics are troubling, as Mark Twain reputedly said about Wagner's music, "It's not as bad as it sounds."

In an earlier post, I pointed out significant challenges to getting truly meaningful and valid data on actual student success given the large numbers of students now taking advantage of the myriad ways to negotiate postsecondary education. The six-year standard used by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) -- which appears to have borrowed the idea from the NCAA, an organization that has subsequently abandoned it as inadequate -- focuses on first-time, full-time students. However, those cohort groups no longer represent even a majority of students for a large number of institutions. For example, at Saint Leo University, many, but far from all, undergraduates on our traditional campus arrive with that status. But the percentage is much lower for our active military and veteran students, adults entering our civilian centers, and our Center for Online Learning student. Together these 10,555 "non-traditional" students represent approximately 83 percent of our undergraduate student population. Even a casual scan of the landscape of American higher education suggests that our profile is common, perhaps the norm. Thus the USDOE definition is not a good measure of how well institutions are doing in helping students achieve timely graduation. Use of National Student Clearinghouse data that uses a methodology of tracking individual student progress across multiple institutions seems to be a better approach.

Regardless of such technical issues with the data, it is undeniable that serious problems exist in achieving satisfactory student success at a vast majority of institutions and for all types of students -- traditional, adult, full- and part-time, online, and others. As noted in a 2010 national study of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) that focused on traditional students at regional public universities:

Student success rates are alarmingly low and have not changed significantly in many years: Fewer than one-third of degree-seeking, full-time freshmen in public four-year institutions graduate in four years. Most students who enter college as first-time, full-time freshmen take at least six years to earn a bachelor's degree--and only 55 percent graduate in that time span.

Recent USDOE data shared in "The Condition of Education, 2012" reaffirms this observation as, for example, the country's Class of 2010 shows a similar graduation rate within six years. But "the times they are a changing," and so also must American postsecondary education change.

It is now clear that the 21st century economy is driven by knowledge and, therefore, new rules will prevail. A thorough 2010 report authored by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workplace notes that the key to employability and attaining middle-class status is the ability to connect education, training, and careers. A postsecondary education is the threshold requirement for a middle-class income. What does this mean in terms of average 2008 dollars given the current and projected labor market value for persons with various levels of education? According to the Georgetown report:

• A high school degree is worth about $569,000 more than being a dropout.

• Having some college, but no degree or postsecondary certificate is worth about $473,000 more than a high school degree.

• An associate degree is worth about $15,000 than some college, but no degree.

• A bachelor's degree is worth about $1.1 million more than an associate degree.

• A master's degree is worth $457,000 more than a bachelor's degree.

• A doctoral degree is worth about $193,000 more than a master's degree.

• A professional degree is worth about $621,000 more than a doctoral degree.

The Georgetown report also projects that two-thirds of all new jobs and jobs that replace obsolete jobs will require postsecondary education. The report adds that the nation will under-produce the necessary workforce by more than three million by 2018. It further notes, citing a McKinsey Global Institute study, that 71 percent of U.S. workers are in jobs for which there is and will be low demand from employers.

If this and similar reports and predictions are correct (including some excellent follow up studies by the Georgetown University Center), the economic future of the U.S. and of all its regions clearly needs postsecondary institutions to improve degree completion rates. Access remains important, and since World War II, opportunities have proliferated that have made it easier for both young and adult students to afford school, engage in traditional classrooms close to home throughout the day and evening and on weekends, and study online at home or work. So the pipeline exists, but it turns out to have many leaks. Each leak requires one or more strategies carried out with energy and discipline.

Several studies in recent years found that institutional actions can make a significant difference in graduation rates. My next few blog posts will look at what appear to be some keys in promoting student success for all types of students and programs.