11/08/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Attainment Agenda Not The Enemy of Quality, But The Friend of Affordability

I confess. I was an early adopter of the attainment agenda.

What we once called "student success initiatives" evolved into the current attainment agenda. And, thankfully, we now have governmental agencies, higher education organizations, leading foundations and presidents across the country joining together for collective impact on higher education attainment rates in our country.

Recently, though, some dedicated academics have started to question the attainment agenda movement because certain people are pushing the agenda too far. For example, the New York Times reports that Governors in Texas and Florida have challenged their public colleges to deliver a bachelor's degree for $10,000, which is less than a third of the price of tuition and fees at the average public institution.

Some of my academic friends are worried that they, too, will be asked to sacrifice quality to increase affordability.

I share these concerns about sacrificing quality. If institutions sacrifice quality to decrease costs, they will decrease their potential to attract and retain students. In the long run, sacrificing quality to increase affordability just won't work. We have to increase affordability in other ways.

The attainment agenda also has some academics worried that we will be asked to sacrifice rigor and academic standards in order to promote retention and graduation rates. I don't share these concerns. In my view, the only universities that would need to sacrifice rigor and academic standards in order to adopt a new focus on higher retention rates are those for whom the primary cause of student attrition is academic failure.

I have checked available data and asked around a lot, and I have not identified a single institution whose attrition percentage is substantially composed of students who are academically ineligible to return.

Instead, I have found that most other institutions are a lot like my own. At Winthrop -- an institution consistently ranked as one of the Top 10 Master's universities in the South -- only 5.3% (61) of our fall 2012 first-time students were suspended at the end of spring 2013. However, 22.7% (260) were academically eligible to return for fall 2013 but chose not to.

I regret that we lost 61 students for academic reasons. I worry about how much of that was due to student effort, student ability or our effort and ability to help them succeed, despite a strong set of student success programs.

However, most of my focus is on the 260 students who chose not to return. Our 72% freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate is higher than the 66.8% national average for public universities, in large part because we follow best practices for student engagement and academic success programs. But, our rate can and should be higher, and that prompts us to consider why students leave.

Surveys show that the #1 reason students don't return to our university -- and probably most universities like ours -- has little to do with their choices. The majority of the students who "choose" not to return report that they simply cannot afford to stay in school.

That is a loss of human potential we should not abide.

Promoting the next level of progress for improving retention rates and degree attainment will require an unprecedented focus on increasing affordability using a three-pronged effort:

First, we must implore our friends in the Legislature to restore state funding based on the impact our programs provide.

Second, we must adopt administrative efficiencies and otherwise work to reduce our "expense per student FTE" and reduce students' "time to degree," while also supporting salary increases, instructional and student engagement programs, and quality across the board.

Third, we must offer additional need-based scholarships.

If we are truly dedicated to promoting access to high-quality education regardless of socio-economic class, then the attainment goal isn't the enemy of quality. Instead, the attainment goal is actually our friend - the motivating factor for us to steadfastly maintain quality and galvanize our efforts to cultivate more need-based financial aid for our students.