Advancing by Degrees – A Framework for Increasing College Completion

April 2010

The United States is becoming less globally competitive as other nations move aggressively to educate their populations. To lead the world once again in educational attainment—President Obama’s goal by 2020—more Americans will need to enter college. But our biggest challenge isn’t college going; it is college completion.
Low-income students and students of color—a large and growing population—complete college at especially low rates. At many institutions, though, graduation rates are not high for any group of students.

Around the country, higher education leaders who want to help increase the number of graduates in their communities and states are all asking the same questions: To improve student success, where should we focus? And how will we know if what we do is working?

• At one major state university system, leaders are concerned that black and Latino students are earning bachelor’s degrees at far lower rates than white and Asian students. They find the extensive research literature about student success more overwhelming than helpful. Moreover, their budget has just been cut, and they have to be sure that the steps they take address the root of the problem. Where should they start?

• At a large community college system, leaders know that most students never advance to the point of passing a college-level mathematics course and thus never earn a college degree. System leaders have observed how certain “boutique” programs have helped students succeed in math, but they cannot afford to offer these programs to all students. What changes in institutional practice or policy would help eliminate barriers to success and give students the best chance of passing college-level math?

Experience has taught us that the answers to these questions often lie buried in the reams of data that most colleges routinely produce but rarely analyze. Drawing on our analyses of data from two large postsecondary systems, this report aims to help system and campus leaders use their data to (1) deepen their understanding of what really aids student success and (2) produce a set of timely, “on track” indicators that can rapidly gauge the impact of efforts to produce change.

Timely indicators are hugely important if institutional leaders are to know whether things are on track or off track —before it’s too late. Monitoring six-year graduation rates, in other words, doesn’t come close to being good enough. Neither does simply monitoring annual retention rates because there is so much more that can help leaders understand what’s going right or wrong on the road to college success.

We’ve provided some examples of how to analyze institutional data and create more useful indicators by drawing on data sets from one public university system and one large community college system. The answers you get may vary somewhat from these, for some things may be more (or less) important in certain types of institutions or for certain types of students.

Regardless of the circumstances, however, there are two things institutional leaders should never do as they learn more about the students who don’t succeed. They shouldn’t lower standards, and they shouldn’t excuse low graduation rates for some groups of students because “students like these” supposedly cannot be expected to graduate at higher rates.

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