Over the last two months, through ACPA Video On Demand and the ACPA President’s Blog, I have been discussing the completion agenda and the role college student educators play in promoting retention and graduation. Most recently, I have discussed the importance of moving from serendipity to intentionality in student learning. These two issues – completion and student learning – must be integrated as they are not different concepts, but two sides of the same coin: student success.
National attention has been focused on graduation rates in higher education and President Obama’s Completion Agenda. In February of 2009, President Obama outlined this educational priority with the goal of attaining the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020 (Kanter, Ochoa, Nassif, & Chong, 2011). According to 2012 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranked 19th out of 28 countries studied (Weston, 2014). There is clearly work do be done on this front and as such this topic continues to occupy headlines in national papers and higher education publications.
Degree attainment is an important goal to emphasize. As examined in my May post, President Obama presented three reasons supporting the completion agenda. The first was that a college degree is required for 60% of jobs. In addition to being a requirement for the majority of careers, individuals with a college degree earn 40% more over a lifetime than those without. This is a significant individual financial value. Finally, President Obama believed that an educated citizenry was needed for an engaged democracy (Kanter, Ochoa, Nassif, & Chong, 2011). In the same post, I also posited that a greater number of individuals with college degrees provide skilled labor, an economic benefit to the country. A greater number of Americans graduating from college clearly affords advantages for individuals and the U.S.
While increasing the proportion of Americans holding bachelor’s degrees is a worthy goal with significant benefits individually and collectively, I believe the conversation is incomplete. What does receiving a bachelor’s degree mean, really? A college diploma simply documents that a student met a set of requirements by satisfactorily passing a sufficient number of courses, counted by the obsolete credit hour, within a specific curricular framework (general education, major, and electives). A diploma does not validate skill or knowledge attainment. While the assumption is that students must have learned something in order to pass a course and receive credit, the acquired learning is not documented in official institutional records. Rather, the transcript merely shows a grade for each course rather than documentation of knowledge or skill attainment.
This national discourse needs to move beyond completion solely to graduation AND learning. The college degree will continue to be a critical component of the higher education landscape. Currently, and for the near future, the credential a college degree represents is valued across society. It is the currency of education and entry into graduate study, specific professions, and the job market overall.
The next phase in the completion conversation is a “both and” conversation, rather than an “either or” discussion. Educators and policy makers need to be considering college graduation and knowledge/skill attainment, together as two parts of the same goal – two sides of the same student success coin. College graduates without critical thinking, problem solving, communication, ethical reasoning, and other essential skills will not be successful in a today’s job market despite a diploma. An increased proportion of U.S. citizens with bachelor’s degrees devoid of these skills and knowledge will be unequipped to address the rapidly changing, complex challenges our global community confronts. Accomplishing the completion agenda will be irrelevant if college graduates do not acquire vital skills and knowledge.
It is time for Completion Agenda 2.0 that includes discussion of the skills and knowledge every college graduate should possess in addition to increasing overall graduation rates. Fortunately, those conversations have begun (and some have been going on for some time) by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and through the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. These dialogues can no longer exist on the fringes of higher education. They need to be front and center, integrated in all discussions of student success. As college student educators, we need to be the thought leaders furthering this national conversation and examining how our work advances college completion as well as skill and knowledge acquisition of those graduates.
Kanter, M., Ochoa, E., Nassif, R., & Chong, F. (2011). Meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/meeting-president-obamas-2020-college-completion-goal.
Weston, L. (2014). OECD: The US has fallen behind other countries in college completion. BusinessInsider (2014, September 9). Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/r-us-falls-behind-in-college-competition-....