With the new school year upon us, a crop of fresh-faced teenagers recently descended on college campuses nationwide. But behind such images of optimism lurks a startling fact: Two out of five of those incoming freshmen may never earn their degree. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only about 60 percent of students who enrolled in 2007 earned their degrees within six years.
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Some are taking notice. While much of the focus in the U.S. has traditionally been on improving access to higher education, institutions are increasingly examining the rates of college completion. In many ways, completion rates may be the more important metric for both students and institutions. Students who don’t finish their post-secondary degrees obviously take up valuable academic and administrative resources, and, personally, often wind up saddled with overwhelming debt. This is bad news not just for the students and colleges, but for states that have dedicated what are already limited funds.
Among the states struggling with higher education questions is Tennessee, which ranks 41st in share of citizens with a college degree and where the average graduation rate from colleges and universities hovers below 50 percent. In the state’s community college system, the situation is even more dire: Three out of four students in Tennessee’s community colleges do not complete a degree. Among minorities, first-generation students, and low-income students, completion rates are worse still: Only one in 20 African-American students enrolled in Tennessee’s community college system, which offers degrees in two years, attains a degree within three years.
An organization that is actively working to change the dynamic is Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit based in Nashville that aims to ensure that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will earn a college degree or certificate by 2025. Such success, in context, would obviously be no small feat.
This effort is associated with the state’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which encourages state leaders, community organizations, and institutions of higher education to work in unison in order to reach a goal that is directly in line with students’ future prospects. By the year 2025, according to a Complete Tennessee report, “[e]conomists estimate that more than 55 percent of jobs will require a degree.” The state’s move to a more specialized economy has echoes nationwide, and therefore the work of Complete Tennessee can offer an illuminating case study in what others can do to tackle the college-completion problem.
What Complete Tennessee is emphasizing to its state’s citizens and others: Zeroing in on college completion rates will profit not only education generally, but a state’s overall economic vibrancy. Tennesseans with only a high school diploma earn on average $26,000 annually. By contrast, those with a bachelor’s degree earn $45,000, and those with a postgraduate degree earn $57,000. This means that if Tennessee’s “Drive to 55” proves successful, it will grow state and local tax revenue by over $700 million per year, according to statistics from Complete Tennessee.
The organization is in no way blind to demographic situations that need to be honestly confronted. The key question, as Kenyatta Lovett, Complete Tennessee’s executive director, put it, is “How do we ensure that first generation students, students of color, and low-income students graduate at the same rates as their peers?”
The problem isn’t necessarily one of enrollment. As Complete Tennessee’s own research confirms, even the poorest counties in the region enroll nearly half of their high school graduates in postsecondary education. But colleges and universities are struggling to retain many of these students. Complete Tennessee has identified four principal attack points. The first is access. Some rural students live hours away from the closest college campus, so that even if they enroll they often don’t attend class. This has prompted the governor of the state, Bill Haslam, to announce plans to build a campus in Lawrence County, in which multiple institutions might serve one of the state’s so-called “education deserts.” Referring to those plans, Lovett said, “If you create the right community driven to bringing in higher education to one space it can reduce drive time and actually build up that community.” Such a new school can “attract employers as well,” she added. Available education can lead to overall growth.
The second problem affecting college retention rates, according to Complete Tennessee’s findings, is a lack of career-exploration opportunities. Many high school students in Tennessee simply don’t know what skill set is needed for the industry in which they might want to work, or even what career opportunities are available in any particular workforce. This could be resolved by bringing in industry leaders to speak with students and suggest viable career paths.
The third issue is an absence of what is known as “wraparound services,” which don’t have to do with academics, per se, but are important to ensure that students have what’s needed in order to persevere toward a degree. For example, Lovett said, in a more perfect world, “If you have a kid who’s on free and reduced lunch in high school, nothing changes when they turn 18 and graduate from high school.” Those needs will still be met. Today, institutions of higher education too often fall short in this regard.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, there currently exists a disconnect between what schools offer and what employers are looking for. This became apparent to Complete Tennessee during a listening tour throughout the state; it has elements of the career-exploration conundrum but goes deeper. “Employers have highlighted that they need the [colleges and universities] to fully understand the skills that are important in their industries and not be so focused on credentials,” Lovett said. Also, students can be asked to more acutely focus on their futures. One solution that already has proved extremely successful is for the state to offer summer-bridge programs before students begin their freshman year of college, in which they can get a sense of what the college experience entails and in which their remedial needs can be met. These programs often serve as necessary transition periods between high school and postsecondary school. Lovett stressed that students who are most likely to drop out of college are “a little late in registering, they’re a little late in buying their books for college, they’re a little late in understanding the culture, and so that first semester could be a negative game changer for them.” Many don’t know what they’re heading into, or what they’re heading for.
As said, there are already signs that the state is making inroads. Tennessee has become “best-in-class at removing financial barriers to higher education, providing mentors to students as they navigate the admissions process and realigning incentives for higher education to support improved outcomes,” according to a comprehensive report by Complete Tennessee. Tennessee stands as the first state in the nation to offer two and a half years of tuition-free postsecondary education for all high school graduates—a program known as Tennessee Promise. And the college enrollment rate rose to 62.5 percent in fall 2015: a 4.6 percent rise in a single year, which is a larger increase than that of the previous six years combined.
Justin Short, a student attending college tuition-free under the Tennessee Promise program, represents the aspirations of the state’s reformers. He also illustrates that success takes hard work on both sides. His transition from high-school in Kingsport to Northeast State Community College has been tough for him, he told the Tennessean newspaper. He had been hoping for smaller classes ,more one-on-one time with professors, and less prohibitive cost textbook costs (he has already spent more than $400). Still, as the first in his family to attend college, Short was convinced that his decision would pay off in the future. “I’m so glad I went to college. So glad,” he told the Tennessean. “I’m going to college, I’m getting a degree—I’m going to make something of myself.”