College Completion: Still a Big Deal, So Let’s Make It Easier and Cheaper

The return on investment from American colleges is dropping—a combination of insane cost inflation and a crummy job market.   To be fair, many colleges are giving kids what they want—beautiful campuses, restaurants, and spas—and parents, lenders, and alumni keep shelling out the cash.  But disruptive alternatives—like free—will pop the bubble for third tier institutions.  Declining subsidies will convert your favorite state U into a selective private institution (e.g., University of Colorado is basically private). And your kid won’t get in because the U decided to boost enrollment of full-tuition international students.
A group of about thirty higher education leaders, philanthropist, entrepreneurs, policy makers and advocates met in DC yesterday to discuss strategies for boosting college completion and ROI.
They started with a provocative question: now that most of the world’s knowledge is available as free and open content, does college still matter?  There was general agreement that most employers still value a degree, so credits still matter—especially for low income and first generation students.
Competency-based systems, like Western Governor’s University, obviously makes sense and despite the fact that WGU is growing by 30% annually the idea just hasn’t caught on.  That’s because institutions have had little incentive to grant credit for people that show up with skills or can more quickly through the system.
But that is going to change.  The rise of open content—Khan Academy,, Edx, Academic Earth—is building a giant reservoir of demand for competency-based college credits.  There are game-based iPad apps (e.g., Cut The Rope and Water) that do a better job of teaching engineering than the classes I took 30 years ago.
The days are numbered for the regional accreditation system that maintains the oligopoly with no regard for academic ROI.  The guardians of inputs will eventually succumb to market-driven outcome measures.  The state that figures this out will instantly be an international leader in competency-based education and will probably have visitors from all over the world in search of credits for what they know and can do.
Acceleration options will also become more important.  Here’s the chat we should have with every American eighth grader:

  • Congratulation, in two years you will be earning college credit.  You need to choose between brand name and fast lane—expensive selective colleges and rapid pathways to a degree.
  • If you want a shot at a selective college you should plan on four years in high school with lots of AP or IB and boatloads of activities.  If you don’t get in to your favorite selective, you’ll have at least a year of college credit that a second tier college will accept.
  • The alternative is graduation from high school in three years with a year of community college credit and transferring to a school that gives you full credit allowing you to graduate from college in two or three years—a 3+3 pathway.

For adult learners ‘stackable certificates’ (i.e., 2+2 programs) allow access to entry level jobs while additional credits are accumulated.
Improved market signaling helps college know what to offer and helps students get into degree programs likely to yield employment.  At the macro level this requires surveying emerging job clusters.  At the micro level, it means paying attention to course taking patterns at bleeding-edge providers like GeneralAssembly (seriously, look at the courses offered this week—you won’t find any of these at your local community college).
Improved signaling requires much better data systems.  For starters, states need Florida-like abilities to track a kid from high school to college to the labor market. States need to be able to track high school aspirations, college enrollment, college persistence and transfers, graduation, and at least initial employment.  States should know how much debt a student accumulated and whether they are paying it back.
Outcomes measures will grow in importance with the rush to market-based certification systems.  Without achievement standards and measures of academic growth there will be a lot of crappy credits granted (not that most current credits are worth the debt incurred).
Automated essay scoring, recently demonstrated to be highly accurate and already used to certify doctors, can be part of the solution to providing lots of standards-based feedback to college freshman and sophomores.  When combines with measures like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), we can begin to track the value-added contribution of college coursework.
The administration has been beating on for-profit online colleges, but when we start to measure academic progress it will be clear that they stack up pretty well compared to your local state U.
Yes, we should strive to be number one in college completion rates again.  But let’s make sure the massive public subsidy is producing an ROI.  Let’s help families make informed decisions before they incur educational debt they won’t be able to repay.
For more on college completion strategies, see:

This blog first appeared on Huffington Post

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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