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Subject:

Getting to the Finish Line

From:

Norm Stahl <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 17 Jun 2009 15:18:43 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (136 lines)

  Getting to the Finish Line
June 17, 2009



WASHINGTON -- Following the lead of President Obama, who stressed the
importance of college graduation rates in his first address to
Congress earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on
Tuesday announced more than $6.4 million in grants to national policy
organizations for efforts to identify why so many young Americans
drop out of college.

"Today, a two-year or four-year college degree or certificate is a
prerequisite for economic success," Hilary Pennington, director of
education, postsecondary success and special initiatives for the
Gates Foundation, said to an audience of higher education
professionals gathered at the Library of Congress here. Yet while
tangible economic incentives to finish college are evident, she said,
completion rates have been stagnant since the 1970s. While the United
States once led the world in terms of postsecondary completion rates,
it now ranks 10th.

That is why, Pennington said, the Gates Foundation is expanding its
efforts in areas of high school completion and college preparation to
study and improve the ways colleges and policy makers can help
students -- especially low-income, African American, Hispanic and
nontraditional students -- complete degrees (four-year and otherwise).

The grants announced Tuesday include $1.25 million for the American
Enterprise Institute; $800,000 for the Center for American Progress;
$1.5 million for the Center for Law and Social Policy; $675,000 for
the College Board; $600,000 for Excelencia in Education; and $1.58
million for the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Initiatives
that will be funded through the grants focus on developing policy
proposals, collecting usable data, and promoting innovation on an
institutional level.

"Students need to be ready for college but colleges have to be ready
for students," Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector and
moderator of Tuesday's panel discussion, said, asking the national
policy organization officials on the panel what needs to be done to
shift the responsibility a little more evenly from students to
institutions.

One issue is with funding, panel members said. This country invests
50 times more money in initiatives aimed at giving students access to
college than it does in efforts designed to ensure that they succeed
once there, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at
the Center for Law and Social Policy. That is a major "stumbling
block" in terms of policy, she said, mentioning later an example of
one state -- Oklahoma -- that has successfully provided incentives
for college completion rates by tying them to state funding.
According to a February report by the Midwestern Higher Education
Compact, performance funding in Oklahoma -- focused on student
retention, graduation, and degree completion -- has averaged $2.2
million per year.

But a one-size-fits-all model will not address the widely varying
needs of colleges, the panelists emphasized. Mark Schneider, vice
president of the American Institutes for Research and visiting
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy
Research, cited a report released by AEI last week showing that even
among "competitive" colleges, graduation rates range from just over
20 percent to more than 70 percent.

Gathering more thorough information about individual colleges would
help identify what's working and what's not, Schneider said, adding
that he supports the notion of developing a federal database of
student records to allow policymakers to track their progress across
institutions -- a debate that has raged for years. But, he said,
"surprise, surprise, there are political problems" involved in
national data collection, and the current method of collection -- the
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System -- leaves out
information that could be useful for evaluating colleges, including
figures that could encourage more nontraditional students to pursue
and finish degrees (like how much and often the college discounts
tuition for low-income applicants).

It's also important, though, that policy makers avoid just "talking
to each other," Schneider said. A major factor in a successful degree
completion initiative would have to be the dissemination of
information to colleges and applicants.

For Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education -- which aims
to accelerate Latino students' success in higher education -- that
means bringing to low-income and minority students the kind of
"conversations that regularly go on at middle-class breakfast tables."

Schneider agreed, suggesting college applicants who traditionally
miss out on adequate college counseling should have access to
information not just about which institutions they are qualified to
attend, but also the relative statistics for each -- especially each
college's graduation rates for minority populations. That means
getting information into "the hands of people who really matter" --
students, parents and guidance counselors.

"The question comes up, 'If we only knew what works,' " said Tom
Rudin, senior vice president for advocacy, government relations and
development for the College Board. "Well we do know what works."

Testing workable ideas on real campuses -- not just talking "from
30,000 feet" as Brown warned against -- and taking a more one-on-one
approach with students have proven successful in the past, he said,
and should be emphasized in the future. There are "programs all over
the place" that serve as positive role models in that regard -- the
"Call Me MISTER" initiative at Clemson University is one.

But underlying any new initiative for an increase in college
graduation rates has to be a recognition that the landscape of
students and the institutions they choose is changing, Duke-Benfield
said. Higher education is "largely in denial" about the demographic
shift in college attendees toward more nontraditional students, she
said, and a major focus in the efforts funded by the Gates grants
should be on ways to reach and support today's students.

Gates officials promised that they would be responding to many of
those suggestions as they announce more grants in the coming weeks
and months.
- Kate Maternowski



Stolen from Inside Higher Education
--
Norman A. Stahl, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Literacy Education

Past President, National Reading Conference

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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