Do College Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?
By Judith Ramaley
In his inaugural speech, President Obama declared that “our schools fail too many.” Few would disagree with the fundamental premise that we must promote greater educational attainment for everyone if we are to meet the challenges of today’s world. The United States once led the world in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, but in recent years, 15 other nations have surpassed us in that measure. Some nations are already pulling ahead of us in the proportion of their total adult population that holds college degrees.
Concerns about our nation’s declining position in the global education race and what that may mean for our competitiveness have led us to a focus on college completion. Policy makers are setting goals for degree attainment, designing ways to measure the progress of students and how quickly they earn a degree, and asking colleges and universities to shorten degree programs and remove barriers to academic success. Few of these efforts include a discussion about what it means to be educated and why we are failing to serve all of our students well.
A focus on “completion” will not be enough to help us increase our competitiveness, prepare our students to be responsible citizens, and protect and enhance our nation’s role in the world. We must first figure out why we are failing so many students, and then we must do something about it. Only then will the completion rates go up. We must also talk about what an accumulation of credit hours can actually tell us about our graduates. By focusing on degree completion without considering the quality and outcomes of the experiences that accompany that achievement, we are shortchanging ourselves and our students.