Can We Increase Completion Rates While
Maintaining Quality?

In January 2012, AAC&U published a special issue of its journal, Liberal Education, featuring a series of articles about implications–intended and unintended–of the Completion Agenda. We have invited a series of national educational leaders and practitioners to comment on the issues raised.  This first posting is by Alexander W. Astin, senior scholar and founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

I enjoyed reading AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider’s thoughtful lead article in the latest issue of Liberal Education. As government officials and foundation executives keep pushing higher education to increase degree completion rates, it is important to remind ourselves that in attempting to raise completion rates we should not ignore issues of quality.

As it happens, a thoughtful and well-informed approach to completion will clearly tend to promote quality. For example, the best-designed and most comprehensive research that’s been done on completion shows that the single most important factor in degree completion that’s been identified so far is academic preparation, far more important than costs, financial aid, and social class, the favorites of so many politicians and policy wonks. Poorly prepared students, in short, are prime candidates for dropping out of college.

This same research also shows that the next most powerful factors in non-completion are commuting and part-time attendance. Most likely these relationships can be best understood in the context of involvement or engagement: students who are most likely to drop out are those who are the least involved in their college experience. Commuting and attending part-time, of course, tend to minimize involvement in the academic experience. The fact that commuters and part-timers are often deprived of exposure to a community of fellow learners compounds the problem.

When you combine poor preparation with minimal engagement, you have the worst of everything, which helps to explain the poor completion rates of so many community colleges and public four-year colleges.

That these factors get so little attention in policy discussions is a source of considerable frustration, especially to a researcher who has devoted much of his career to studying such issues. While it is true that problems such as poor academic preparation and a lack of residential facilities cannot be fixed merely by waving a policy wand, there are certainly creative ways in which we can enhance pre-collegiate preparation by forging closer academic partnerships between secondary and postsecondary education, and there are measures that commuter institutions can take to simulate the benefits of the residential experience. We can also do more to encourage new college students, especially traditional-age students, to attend college on a full-time basis.

Finally, it should be pointed out that this same research evidence on degree completion connects directly to our notions about what constitutes the ideal environment for effective liberal learning: good preparation, a community of learners, and high levels of effort and involvement. In other words, academic quality and degree completion are compatible: improve (or remediate) preparation and create a learning environment that promotes student involvement, and better completion will follow.

Alexander W. Astin
Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus &
Founding Director
Higher Education Research Institute
University of California, Los Angeles

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