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Debate Shift
Rx for higher ed: access and completion
Budget debates should consider college access and completion rates.
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Now that the election is over, it’s time to make a plan to steer our way out of the budget crisis while preserving the long-term growth potential of the economy. Keeping higher education affordable and excellent should be a top priority, since it has been an engine of growth for more than a century. One way to get more out of the money the government and individuals spend on college is to focus not only on college access (where the U.S. leads the world) but also on college completion (where the U.S. ranks thirteenth).

That’s the message I took this week to Washington, D.C., where I participated in a session during the Washington Ideas Forum, which is a partnership between The Atlantic magazine, Aspen Institute, and the Newseum. I got a chance to present the slides you see here and did a Q&A with David Leonhardt from The New York Times.

College enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high, which is great news. Unfortunately, most college students never get a degree. Completion is abysmal. Only about half of those who start a four-year degree finish within six years, and barely 20 percent of those pursuing an associate degree get one in three years. Those percentages are even lower for low-income and minority students. 

These students who don’t complete their degree are taking on tens of billions in loans and getting tens of billions in government grants. In short, public policies subsidize access, which they should do, but they seem to be agnostic about whether those who get access eventually succeed. This needs to change. 

Part of getting completion rates up is redesigning the college experience to fit the changing demographics of the student population. As enrollment goes up, the typical student profile changes. College students today are working (a third have full-time jobs) and raising families (a quarter have children), and almost half are enrolled part-time. We should not expect to educate them the same way we educate single 18-year-olds living on campus and focusing only on classes—a stereotype of the traditional college student that no longer holds true.

Technology can help educators and policymakers redesign the college experience, improving learning while lowering costs. The key is making sure that technology is developed to be effective with the least advantaged students as well as the most advantaged.

One promising example is Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. OLI developed interactive courseware that produced very compelling results with Carnegie Mellon students. Our foundation funded OLI to work with community colleges and their students. Recently, a random control trial proved that OLI courseware combined with classroom instruction produced the same or better results than classroom instruction alone with a broad cross section of students. OLI also helped get students through the material in less time.

The results point the way to significant cost savings and high-quality learning that meets students’ needs, all of which can help increase access and completion. But there is much, much more work to be done to unlock all this potential.

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