Improving College Completion: Action Steps for Legislators
Earning a college credential is increasingly important for success in today’s economy. Although American colleges and universities successfully enroll students, only 56 percent of those who start at four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Only 28 percent of associate degree-seeking students graduate within three years. State legislators across the country have recognized the problem and are acting to improve college completion rates. Some strategies states are exploring are highlighted here.
Reconsider Funding for Colleges and Universities
In most states, higher education institutions receive funding based on how many full-time equivalent students are enrolled at the beginning of the semester. That model provides incentives for colleges to get students into the classroom—but not necessarily to increase student success in class. Several states are reconsidering that funding model and instead are allocating money to colleges based on the number of students who complete courses and degrees.
Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington have modified their higher education funding formula to provide some incentive funding based on performance indicators such as course completion, time to degree, transfer rates, the number of degrees awarded, or the number of low-income and minority graduates.
Florida and Pennsylvania noted positive results from tying a small amount (6.5 percent to 8 percent) of state higher education funding to student success. Florida began performance funding for community colleges in 1994. Between 1996 and 2007, enrollment grew by 18 percent, and the number of certificates and degrees awarded increased by 43 percent.[i] In Pennsylvania, four-year institutions have received performance-based funding for the last decade. As a result, graduation rates have increased by about 10 percentage points. In addition, retention rates for Hispanic students have increased by 15 percentage points.
Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee are the first states attempting to completely shift their funding formula. During the next few years, performance-based funding will grow incrementally, and eventually 100 percent of base funding will be tied to course completion and other performance indicators instead of to course enrollment. Because this is the first instance of large-scale performance funding, we do not yet know what the outcomes will be.
Help Students Transfer Between Institutions
Most students attend more than one institution before they earn a degree. A growing number of students see community colleges as a more affordable option and start their college career there. States can help these students be successful by implementing transfer and articulation policies that ease the process and prevent the loss of already earned credits and valuable time. These polices can create a coherent, statewide procedure for transferring, establish a common course numbering system throughout the state higher education system, and identify a general education core that is accepted by all institutions.
Florida, for example, has a "2 plus 2" policy that guarantees students who earn an associate of arts degree from a community college can transfer all 60 credits to a state four-year institution and enroll with junior standing. Most independent colleges and universities recognize the transfer agreement. In addition, Florida has a common course numbering system that helps students see how their classes will transfer from one college to another.
In the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions, at least eight states—Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia—passed legislation creating a transfer and articulation policy.
Speed Up Time to Degree
Every extra year that students take to complete a college degree diminishes the chance they will graduate. Extra time often means students are taking more credits than they need, costing states more money. A 2006 study by the Florida Legislature found that credit hours taken beyond those required to graduate cost the state $62 million each year. States can take several steps to help students graduate on time—or even early.
States can set caps of 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree and 60 credits for an associate degree. Texas discourages excess credit hours by removing the state subsidy for students who exceed a certain number of credit hours. States can provide incentives through financial aid programs for students to enroll full-time, which improves their chances of graduating. At least 21 states provide scholarships that require students to enroll full-time.[ii]
Encouraging high school students to earn college credit through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment is another strategy to speed up the time to degree. Under accelerated degree programs—such as one-year associate degrees and three-year bachelor’s degrees—students can earn college credit through high school programs and summer classes during college. An example of an accelerated bachelor’s degree program is Rhode Island’s statewide “Bachelor’s Degree in Three Program,” created by 2009 legislation.
Lumina Foundation and Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana have launched a one-year associate degree program that targets low-income, college-ready students. Those accepted into the program receive financial aid to cover tuition, fees and books. They take courses with a cohort of students in a block schedule (i.e., Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Jobs for the Future, “Time to Completion,” 2010.
Complete College America, “Reduce Time and Accelerate Success,” 2010.
The Chronicle of Higher Ed ucation, “Experiment at Ivy Tech: a One-Year Associate Degree,” 2010.
Rhode Island General Assembly, “Three years to a college degree in Rhode Island,” 2009.
Newsweek, “What’s Education For Anyway? A debate on higher ed and the three year degree,” 2010.
Deliver Higher Education in a Different Way
A block schedule offers classes back-to-back at a set time. This model is attractive to students because the predictability allows them to more easily plan work schedules and handle family responsibilities. Another nontraditional delivery model is to group students in cohorts; they take the same classes and progress through the program together. The cohort model allows students to use each other as resources and support.
Tennessee’s Technology Centers use both methods. The system of 27 technology centers is separate from the community college system and specializes in one-year certifications in high-demand fields. In addition to using a block schedule and cohort approach, the technology centers focus on programs rather than individual courses. Students know at registration what courses they must take, how much the program will cost, and for which specific job they are training. The Tennessee Technology Centers have a 75 percent completion rate and an 83 percent job placement rate. These rates are much higher than those at community colleges and most for-profit schools.
Many institutions offer online courses and several offer degrees entirely online. Western Governors University (WGU) is a national, online, non-profit university that operates at lower costs than average institutions. WGU’s programs are competency-based rather than focused on seat time and credit hours. Students complete subject area assessments at their own pace. Even though the program is entirely online, students receive individualized attention from an assigned mentor. Lumina Foundation recently funded the launch of WGU Indiana, a subsidiary of Western Governors University that is customized for Indiana students.
Montana is also expanding online learning options. In 2009, the Montana Legislature approved funding to create a virtual community college as a low-cost option to expand access. The program is still being developed, but soon students statewide will be able to take dual enrollment and workforce training courses online.
States are considering how they can deliver more high-quality degrees at a lower cost. This requires institutions to become more productive and efficient. Ohio, for example, required in fiscal year 2009 that institutions cut costs by 3 percent by making campus operations more efficient. That year, the higher education system counted $200 million in efficiency savings. Institutions kept the savings and reinvested them in programs to increase student success. The efficiency savings requirement is in effect through fiscal year 2011. Ohio also set up a Statewide Efficiency Council to increase higher education efficiency in energy, technology, administration, academics and procurement.
The University System of Maryland’s successful Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative, in place since 2003, has garnered significant savings. As part of the initiative, Maryland is redesigning large-enrollment developmental and introductory courses to cut costs and improve student success. The university system is working the National Center for Academic Transformation, the organization that has successfully redesigned courses using technology and new teaching methods. From 2006 to 2009, Maryland piloted a redesign effort that resulted in savings of up to 60 percent of student costs and gains of up to 20 points in course pass rates. Maryland is reinvesting the savings to expand the redesign effort to reach more classes and students, become more efficient and improve student success.
State legislators are at the forefront of education reform. As the demand for higher education increases, legislators will want to creatively design and implement policies to increase delivery of high-quality credentials while keeping costs down. Some strategies states are focusing on include performance-based funding; transfer and articulation policies; time to degree; innovative delivery methods; and productivity. Not all of these strategies will be a fit for every state, institution or student, but they are some of the options states are experimenting with to reform higher education. The resources listed throughout the brief can help guide legislators as they explore these issues.
[ii] According to NCSL data, the 21 states are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.