6 Years in and 6 to Go, Only Modest Progress on Obama's College Completion Goal

Six years ago, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama set a bold, if daunting, goal: to lead the world in college completion by 2020.

At the time, the United States was tied for 12th place worldwide in the percentage of young adults with at least an associate degree. To get to No. 1, the country would have to raise its attainment rate from 39 percent to 56 percent.

Today, as Mr. Obama prepares to deliver his next-to-last State of the Union address to Congress, the nation has moved up only slightly, into a tie for 11th place, and the president’s ambitious goal looks unachievable. While the national college-graduation rate has climbed to 44 percent, the gulf between the United States and some of its competitors remains wide, and the target is moving. To catch South Korea, the current leader, the country would have to pull its graduation rate all the way up to 67 percent.

Even the president’s supporters acknowledge it: We’re not going to close that gap in six years.

"At the time, it was a ‘reach’ goal, and now it is an unreachable goal," said Robert M. Shireman, a former adviser to Mr. Obama who now leads California Competes, an organization working to improve graduation rates in the nation’s most populous state.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the goal setting was for naught. Optimists say even the small upswing is encouraging. They predict that the nation will begin to see bigger annual gains as students who have benefited from new completion programs, created since the president’s announcement, start to graduate.

"The trend is in the right direction, and it will accelerate as these reforms take hold and scale," said Stan Jones, head of Complete College America, a nonprofit group that works with states to increase graduation rates and close attainment gaps. "If we don’t hit it in 2020, we hit it in 2025, and that’s still good."

In an interview, James R. Kvaal, deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, said the president’s goal had "captured people’s imagination," motivating states and colleges to take steps to raise graduation rates. "It’s really resonated with higher-ed leaders and policy makers, and is driving a new focus across the country," he said.

But when asked if Mr. Obama still believed the goal was attainable, Mr. Kvaal said he hadn’t "had that conversation."

A Sense of Urgency

The idea for a national completion goal didn’t emerge from reams of research papers or months of meetings with policy experts. It emerged when two White House advisers went for a walk. One of them, Cecilia E. Rouse, said she and Heather Higginbottom settled on 2020 as the deadline because it "gave us time to achieve it but wasn’t so far out as to be uninspiring."

"It was an important but also aspirational goal," said Ms. Rouse, who has since returned to Princeton University, where she is an economics professor and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The idea appealed to President Obama, who was looking for ways to strengthen the middle class and expand the economy. He made it the centerpiece of his higher-education agenda, announcing the goal just a month into his presidency, in a nationally televised address to Congress.He called low college-completion rates a "prescription for economic decline" and urged all Americans to pursue "a year or more" of higher education or career training.

"In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity, it is a prerequisite," the president said in the February 2009 speech. "We know that countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow."

The 2020 goal drew attention but was not entirely original. A year earlier, the Lumina Foundation described a similar goal (called "one big, hairy, audacious goal") with a 2025 deadline. And four months earlier, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would spend several hundred million dollars over five years to double the number of low-income students who obtain a degree or credential by age 26.

Still, the president’s speech brought new focus and increased urgency to such efforts. In an interview at the time, Hilary Pennington, who was director of the Gates program, said the speech helped the American public see that "many more countries are taking this much more seriously than we are."

To lead the world in college completion, Americans would have to earn eight million more associate and bachelor’s degrees. Five million of those credentials were expected to come from community colleges, the linchpins of the president’s plan.

In the six years since Mr. Obama announced his goal, foundations, states, and colleges have spent millions of dollars on college retention and completion programs. The federal government has sent billions of dollars to community colleges and states, and has raised the maximum Pell Grant, for low-income students, by $1,000.

There has been some progress: Enrollment is up, as are graduation rates. In 2012-13 there were 10 percent more students at four-year colleges than there were when the president took office, federal data show. During the same period, the number of degrees conferred increased by 15 percent. Public community colleges awarded 75,000 more associate degrees in 2012-13 than they did two years earlier, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

But enrollment at community colleges, which educate about half of all undergraduates and 44 percent of low-income students, has ticked up only slightly—half a percentage point since the 2008-9 academic year—and graduation rates for the sector remain stubbornly low. And while minority students are enrolling in all institutions at higher rates, graduation gaps persist.

Meanwhile, the gulf between goal and reality is growing. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the share of young Americans with college degrees has reached 44 percent, five percentage points higher than when Mr. Obama announced his goal. But much of that growth actually occurred before President Obama took office. That’s because the data available when he made his speech were from 2006. The actual completion rate for 25-to-34-year-olds in 2009 was 41 percent (although that wouldn’t be known until 2011). So in fact, we’re up just three percentage points.

In the meantime, other countries haven’t stood still. South Korea, the world leader, checks in at 66 percent in the latest completion data; Japan is at 59 percent.

Measuring the Competition

But does it really matter that the United States is not No. 1? After all, many of the countries that outrank the United States have much smaller economies. Some may be doing better in college completion simply because their pool of young people is shrinking, while the United States’ pool is growing. And countries count their degrees differently, so the comparison may be apples to oranges.

What matters, some say, is that the United States stays on par with, or ahead of, countries with similar or larger populations, such as India and China. (Those countries don’t belong to the OECD and aren’t included in its reports.) As Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, put it in a 2009 opinion essay in The Chronicle: "As long as we’re the best of the biggest and the biggest of the best, we’ll be okay."

Meanwhile, critics of the president’s goal say there’s little evidence that raising the nation’s college-completion rate will automatically make the country more competitive or prosperous. After all, Russia ranks third, and it’s hardly the model of a successful modern economy. And Germany, an economic powerhouse, has an attainment rate of only 29 percent.

"There is no simple correlation between getting college degrees in people’s hands and national prosperity," said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars. He sees the 2020 goal as a kind of "magical thinking" that assumes that the economy can absorb an unlimited number of college graduates with no impact on wages.

"More graduates doesn’t necessarily mean more jobs," he said. "It means more disappointment, and more disappointed people with debt."

Still, supporters of the 2020 goal outnumber skeptics. Thirty-three states have joined Complete College America’s alliance, pledging to "develop and implement aggressive state and campus-level action plans" to reach college-completion goals. And lawmakers in dozens of states have passed laws restricting remedial education and linking appropriations to graduation rates.

Colleges have embraced the goal as well, with some showing major gains. Georgia State University, for example, has raised its graduation rate by 11 percentage points over the past five years through "predictive analytics"—using data to identify struggling students sooner, and then providing them with academic and financial support. Its African-American and Hispanic students now graduate at a higher rate than its white students do, while its Pell Grant recipients graduate at the same rate as others do, according to Timothy M. Renick, Georgia State’s vice provost and chief enrollment officer.

Mr. Renick, who is also a professor of religious studies, said there is a moral argument for closing racial and socioeconomic completion gaps—as well as a financial one. At Georgia State, every percentage-point increase in retention translates into $3-million in tuition and fees. The university has lost $40-million in state appropriations in recent years, yet its budget has grown because more students have persisted in their studies, he said.

At the University of South Florida, where 41 percent of students receive Pell Grants, the six-year graduation rate is 23 percentage points higher than it was in 2000, thanks to a number of student-success programs. Black students and Pell recipients no longer lag behind their peers, and Hispanic students outperform all other racial groups.

Both universities made commitments to expand their efforts at the recent White House summits on college completion. But leaders on both campuses are doubtful that the nation can get to 60 percent by 2020.

"You don’t turn these things around overnight," said Ralph Wilcox, provost at South Florida. "That’s where a lot of universities go wrong—they don’t stick with it. If they don’t get quick returns, they start to question themselves."

To get to the goal, he said, "it’s going to take all universities’ pulling in the same direction."

In other words, it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take scale. Right now, many innovative ideas are siloed within individual institutions, or are being tested in only one or a few states. Until entire states and university systems sign on, progress toward the 2020 goal will be slow, said Complete College America’s Mr. Jones.

Ideas and Accountability

The recent White House summits, in which hundreds of college leaders convened from across the nation, were an effort not only to elicit new commitments from colleges but also to foster the spread of good ideas and give best practices a chance to emerge.

Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, said he was encouraged by the momentum that he saw building for the completion agenda, a "snowballing" of efforts at colleges and in states.

But sweeping change won’t happen unless states and the federal government compel it, said José Luis Santos, vice president for higher-education policy and practice at the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group. "The only way we will move the needle towards the 2020 goal is if we hold institutions accountable for minimum performance standards," he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states now allocate some amount of higher-education funding on the basis of student outcomes, including graduation rates.

But efforts by President Obama to hold institutions accountable for their outcomes have fallen flat in Congress. Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected his bid to tie a portion of student aid to graduation rates and other outcomes, and now they threaten to block his proposed new college-ratings plan, too.

The administration has not published annual targets for its goal, but an Education Department spokeswoman said the agency set a trajectory in 2011, aiming to increase attainment by 2.1 percent each year through 2020. The country missed that benchmark in 2011 and 2012, improving by less than a percentage point each year.

Last year the department revised its goal. It now expects attainment growth to accelerate annually, from 0.7 percent in 2014 to 3.5 percent in 2020. It exceeded its 2014 target by one-tenth of a percentage point.

One way the department could reach its goal would be to include certificates in the national college-completion numbers reported to OECD, as some countries already do. The White House's Mr. Kvaal said the president has always wanted to count certificates "that were meaningful in the work force" toward his goal, but hasn’t had the data.

That could soon change. Department officials have been working with the Census Bureau to add questions to its population survey that might separate certificate holders from dropouts—a distinction currently missing from the data submitted to the OECD.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, estimates that adding certificates would raise the completion rate by at least five percentage points, catapulting the nation to sixth in the world.

But that still would leave a 16-point gap between the United States and South Korea, and only six years to bridge it. Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe the president’s goal was a bit too bold?

Read more at The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/6-Years-in6-to-Go-Only/151303