04/02/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

'College Completion' About Students as People -- Not Just Academic Awards and Credentials

Today's emphasis on the need to drastically increase the number of Americans with college credentials has become a major driver of higher education. And while I emphatically support the College Completion Agenda introduced by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), I do not ever want to focus so much on the outcome of awarding credentials that I minimize the value of the person receiving the credential.

This is never more apparent than when a student loses his or her life. I am in my fifth year of serving at Snead State Community College, and two particular students who lost their lives much too soon remain in my thoughts often. I do not think of them as a degree not awarded. I remember their smiles, their energy, their dreams and their positive impact on others. They were alike in many ways and so different in others. Gabe was a traditional aged, single young Hispanic man from out-of-state who was on our cheerleading squad, and we lost him to a tragic accident on a rural highway. He left behind grieving parents, siblings and friends. Jennifer was a young wife and mother in our Nursing Program who perished in the April 2011 deadly tornadoes along with her husband, both of his parents and an 18-month-old nephew. Jennifer left behind a six-year-old daughter.

Gabe and Jennifer were alike in their commitment to excellence and their devotion to their dreams for the future. Gabe was an amazing young athlete. Jennifer was set to begin living her dream. We at Snead know that she would have been an excellent nurse! She died one week from graduation.

The loss of a student represents a particular anguish for us because we lose not only the student, but we also lose the future contributions of the student. We lose the fulfillment of that particular student's dream. We lose a critical part of the collective learning our institutions produce each year. Every college in America deals with death of students, and the larger the institution, the greater the probability of such a loss. The smaller the institution, the more personal the impact seems. In either case, the grief is difficult.

Each day I am reminded again of how vitally important every single student is to our collective future. The College Completion Agenda is about many different things, but more than anything else it is about realizing hope! Its success relies on each of us seeing every single student as our personal opportunity to assist with hope fulfilled.

Does college completion matter? Yes, it does. Let's just never forget that we strive to teach students -- the awarding of degrees is a natural outcome, not necessarily the primary goal.

Dr. Robert Exley has served as President of Snead State Community College in Boaz, AL, since 2008. Dr. Exley's areas of expertise include leadership development, student development, strategic planning and organizational change management. During his tenure at Snead State, the college has become known for its comprehensive Campus Master Plan, implementation of the College Completion Agenda, and enhancement of student engagement.