Public Policy and Foundation Funding Should Support
the Intersection of College Completion and 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 fourth posting is by Elaine P. Maimon, president of Governors State University.

The January 2012 edition of Liberal Education, devoted to the “completion agenda,” should be required reading for those concerned with improving student success in US higher education. In the lead article, Carol Geary Schneider cautions against defining degree completion as a mere accumulation of credits and urges policy makers to ensure that the degrees achieved are meaningful evidence of educational attainment. As a public university president, scholar of writing across the curriculum, and member of Team Illinois of Complete College America, I urge policy makers and funders to focus on the points of intersection of completion and quality. A degree must be more than a credential; it must represent an educational milestone. Without more underserved students completing college, demands for “quality” are elitist. Without quality, defined as meaningful educational attainment through high-impact practices, “completion” is empty.

I support Schneider’s identification of the Degree Quality Profile (DQP) as a rallying point for those interested in connecting quality and completion. Cogent definitions of what it means to complete associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees provide benchmarks of quality.

I further support Alexander Astin’s blog comment: “As it happens, a thoughtful and well-informed approach to completion will clearly tend to promote quality” (posted April 5, 2012). He points to three barriers to completion—preparation, part-time attendance, lack of community—which are also road-blocks to quality.

An example of a program designed to overcome these road-blocks is the Dual Degree Program (DDP)—not to be confused with dual enrollment—a partnership, supported by the Kresge Foundation, connecting Governors State University and eight local community colleges. The university provides substantial financial incentives for community college students to attend full-time, requires that students achieve the associate’s degree before transferring, and promotes a sense of community among DDP students and with the faculty and staff at both the community college and university. The encouragement to achieve the associate’s degree is a quality initiative, requiring students to complete a coherent program in the community college, one informed by the DQP, before transferring to the university. Community college students who take ad hoc, randomly selected courses over a period of several years are not giving the community college a chance to provide high quality preparation. Transfer specialists and peer advisors assist students in creating a sense of community and in navigating academic, social, and psychological issues that often prevent completion and diminish quality. Advising on college/university financing affirms the counter-intuitive principle that full-time study (defined as 12–15 credits per semester) can be combined with employment and that strategic progress toward completion can actually be less expensive than swirling from course to course and institution to institution. Completion and quality intersect in the DDP program.

In addition, as Governors State University plans for the admission of our first freshman class in 2014 (we started out as an upper-division university), we are drawing many ideas about quality and completion from Complete College America and from AAC&U’s LEAP initiative. First-year students will be organized into thematic cohorts, with each student taking at least three courses per semester with the same group. Students will follow a core curriculum of required liberal arts courses that will transfer (if necessary) to any Illinois college or university. These courses will be designed to integrate high-impact practices (writing across the curriculum, service learning, civic engagement, study abroad). Necessary remediation will be accomplished through a summer bridge program and supplementary hours in credit-bearing courses in English and mathematics.

I feel confident that colleges and universities are ready to develop additional examples of programs that harmonize completion and quality. I hope that policy makers and funders will encourage these initiatives.

Elaine P. Maimon
Governors State University

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