Like everyone in higher education, I am continuously trying to puzzle through the economics of access and equity. As a nation, we have invested deeply in the notion of education as a path to opportunity. Public education, from Kindergarten through some post-secondary education, is nearly (though not quite) considered a right for all Americans. The prevalence of public education is the result of the difficult, but ultimately productive arguments that have taken place since the start of this nation. While we do not always agree about what education should look like, it seems we do agree that it should be widely available.
Our pattern has been one of expansion. Education was first for small groups, sometimes segregated by sex, often by race. Through arguments, local and national, we have broken down many (though not all) of the barriers to at least a high school education. (For an enjoyable history of K-12 in the US, I recommend Johann N. Neem’s, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America). We shouldn’t forget that high school was an expansion, not an assumption from the start. It serves as a reminder that we have continuously added to the scope of what we think the public should fund. As we dive into the national conversation about funding post-secondary education, this is an important lesson. What sounds like an insane economic expansion to some, is really part of the trajectory of expanding access to education from our earliest days.
Nevertheless, the expansion of higher education needs some careful thought. Two data points caught my attention as I read the higher education news over the last few weeks. The first was in Brian Rosenberg’s recent story in the Chronicle, “The Problem with Biden’s Higher-Education Plan” in which he points out that access is only part of the story: completion rates must be addressed. The second is in Jacquelin Elias’s report, “Who Holds America’s $1.5-Trillion Student Loan Debt?” Guess what? There is a connection between the debt and the completion question. To sum up, those who did not complete their degrees are most likely to a) not yield the financial benefits of a college education, and b) carry student loan debt that they cannot re-pay. And, while the group of students who borrowed money that they cannot repay do not carry the super high student loan balances (our grant systems do help), they are likely to be haunted by the bad credit implications for a lifetime.
Now, Biden (and Obama before him) has a strong focus on community colleges. This is where the free college conversation is strongest, and many states have taken steps to make that promise somewhat real. It is last dollar free (students must use their grants first), and it is tuition, not cost of living free, but it is something. For those of us in the public four-year world, the current free discussion is mapped to family income. This seems fair, but it does mean that schools like mine are likely to be missing many of these students in the first two years, while they leverage the free community college for their foundations. I think everyone should make sane economic decisions around their education, so I am not whining, just noting the budget problem this leaves me with.
But that is not what I really want to think about here. What I am most interested in is the fact that, even with the free college, completion rates are a problem. Financial concerns certainly drive that so this funding structure will help, but it is a lot more than that. A short list of things that might get in the way of degree completion includes college preparation, cultural/family support for education, commitment to education/knowing the purpose, and the million ways that life gets in the way. So, I agree with Rosenberg’s observation that completion needs our attention. But the question I have is, do we have the education timeline right?
We speak in two-year and four-year completion rates as if they are part of nature. From an economic planning point of view, that structure certainly helps us organize resources and curriculum. But it doesn’t serve the majority of students very well. This is why community colleges are always struggling with a measure that doesn’t fit their students’ realities, with three year graduation rates below 30%. That is also why access oriented four-year colleges struggle around the 50-60% six year graduation rates. None of us likes these outcomes, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to address them, but I think we might just have the model wrong.
Since so many students do not complete degrees in two-year or four-year timelines, perhaps it is our organization of time that is the problem. Maybe there is room for a different approach. For example:
- Break up the undergraduate experience into two-year increments. I would add that we should really consider three segments, expanding access to advanced education (whether degrees or certificates), because so many opportunities for growth require more learning, after careers are underway. Whether a two-year of four-year institution, that first two years are focused on essential learning foundations with introductory major preparation. For some, this will include job specific education, and a clear exit from education for now. That’s fine. Graduates get the credential win and are prepared for more if they change their mind. For others, there is a career trajectory that is more broadly defined, and their next step should be a year or two in the workplace, exploring options. Then return, for the major work and some more advanced practice in liberal arts thinking. This approach might foster greater commitment to completion (through direct understanding of value) and give students time to grow into what they want to learn.
- Add a service year infrastructure to our educational planning. If all high school graduates are required to do one year of national service prior to entering college, they will contribute greatly to supporting areas of need and have time to think more about what they want to learn. We already know the kind emotional growth that can take place in a service year, which may help students do better when they are in college. It is also a potential engine for cultural engagement, helping students understand the needs of many different communities. This requirement could also help all of us see the value of our investment in education, because in addition to supporting the next generation in their professional and intellectual growth, we will see real labor in our communities.
- Support part-time learning, for real. You see, some students just really need to take the path more slowly. Our current infrastructure makes this challenging and, frankly, makes the student feel like there is something wrong in needing more time. If we schedule learning opportunities year round, in shorter increments, the part-time track could still yield degree completion in a timely manner (two-three years; four-six years, etc.). It will facilitate the management of those other things in life that get in the way and support the momentum that many have identified as crucial for degree completion.
This is just a sketch, and there is so much more to say. The work on supporting the varied learning needs and reducing cultural barriers to success is still urgent. The need for reasonable and helpful accountability measures for free education requires attention. But if we change our assumptions about the timelines for education, perhaps the expansion of access will have the desired effect, instead of a lot of students with some college and no degree. And, of course, I think that all of it should be free.