The Completion Agenda

April 10, 2014

Dr. Dustin Swanger

As I write this article I am at the American Association of Community Colleges conference. A significant topic at the conference is the “completion agenda.” This agenda was announced by President Obama during his first administration; it challenged community colleges to double their graduation rates by 2020. Since that announcement, we have all been working hard on getting students to complete a certificate or degree program. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that we will meet this goal.

At FM, we are pretty successful at student success. The national graduation rate for community colleges is approximately 24%. FM has boasted a graduation rate of around 35%. A more impressive statistic was incorporated in a recent CNN Money magazine article about community colleges. The point of the article is that while community colleges are a value, some are a better value than others based on student success. CNN measured success by the percentage of students who graduated or transferred to a four-year institution within three years. FM has a 54% success rate by these standards; that places FM fourth highest in the state and in the top 5% of community colleges across the country.

Different community colleges have different success rates, so if we’re not likely to reach the goal set by the President, what should we do? I think we could all do better, and we are putting systems and initiatives in place to help students succeed. Many of these initiatives have been highlighted at the conference.

Community colleges are improving college orientations. We are providing clear pathways to completing a program. We are reducing the number of credits required for degree programs (back to 60-64 credits) from what could have been “credit creep.”  Credit creep is a term coined by educators to describe the increased number of credits students take to earn a college degree. This is due to various factors such as the student not being prepared for college, requiring remedial courses before starting their credit-bearing classes; or, the student deciding to change their major, sometimes multiple times, resulting in the student taking longer than four years to complete a degree.  Many community colleges are examining their remedial courses to accelerate them and improve the way students get through these courses; thus, allowing students to successfully complete their credit-bearing courses.

There are many reasons that meeting the proposed completion agenda is difficult to attain. First, the goal was not based on any research, it was a political goal. Second, community colleges are colleges of opportunity. That means, there is a certain percentage of students who will enroll in classes and not succeed; that does not mean that they should not have the opportunity to try. Some community college students never intended to earn a degree. They want to take some classes and move on, there is nothing wrong with that goal. Finally, for many of our students, life gets in the way of education. They have to take care of family, work, or other issues.

To address these issues many community colleges are adopting the Voluntary Framework of Accountability. This new system is designed to measure the success of community colleges and the broad mission of community colleges.

The completion agenda is an admirable goal and one that community colleges should continue to strive to improve. Student success must be central to everything that we do. At FM, we will continue to help students succeed, set goals for students, and be very proud of how we change lives for the better.

Dr. Swanger is President of FM.

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