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Written Testimony on College Completion and Quality

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Submitted by Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities, to the U.S. Department of Education as part of its 2011 Negotiated Rulemaking for Higher Education

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) applauds the Department of Education for focusing national attention on the importance to our nation's future of increasing the numbers of Americans who have access to—and who actually complete—a postsecondary program with a degree or certificate. I write today specifically in response to your stated desire to obtain recommendations concerning promising approaches to increasing college completion and to shaping the "First in the World" competition and its aim of "improving the quality of outcomes."

I urge the U.S. Department of Education, as it develops this competition and all new rules and funding priorities, to work with the higher education community—including individuals from all kinds of colleges and universities (public and private, two-year and four-year)—to ensure that completion efforts are accompanied by, and interwoven with, proactive efforts to significantly raise the quality of college student learning and achievement.

While it is crucially important that we increase the number of Americans who hold postsecondary degrees and credentials, there is an equally urgent national need for all college students to graduate with the learning outcomes they need for success in today's volatile economy and for the exercise of responsible citizenship in a globally interconnected democracy.

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that many students who actually complete college fall short on essential capacities that they will need in all spheres of life—including such key skills as written and oral communication, analytical reasoning, quantitative fluency, information assessment, and problem solving. College graduates also fall short, in many instances, on global, civic, and science literacy. I have attached to this testimony a list of recent studies—of many kinds—which show that many college graduates are not attaining these essential learning outcomes.

AAC&U—an organization of more than 1,200 public and private colleges, community colleges, and universities—has worked diligently over many years to advance an inclusive and ambitious vision for learning that is calibrated to today's challenges—both civic and economic. As the AAC&U board of directors put it in an official statement released in 2010 titled The Quality Imperative,

"Both employers and educators know that the quality shortfall is just as urgent as the attainment shortfall . . . . today's employers want higher education to place significantly more emphasis on a set of outcomes . . . that range from writing to complex problem solving to ethical decision making, science and global learning, intercultural competence, and the ability to apply learning to real-world challenges."

The AAC&U board of directors notes further in this same board-level statement that "public policy cannot simply assume that program completion and high-level student achievement on key learning outcomes are one and the same. Access and completion are necessary but far from sufficient."

As employers are the first to attest, over the last few decades, the expectations for college-level learning have grown dramatically higher. With increasing globalization, rapid technological change, and expanding intercultural challenges, the world itself is raising the bar for what college graduates need to know and be able to do.

We provide a disservice both to individual students and to our society if we confer degrees that do not ensure that students are well prepared for a very demanding global century. As AAC&U's board of directors put it in their 2010 statement, investing only in narrow training programs "will actually limit human talent and opportunity for better jobs in today's knowledge economy."

There is also severe danger of reducing quality in some of the proposed and enacted state-level performance incentives that reward institutions for increases in persistence and completion rates but ignore quality issues and challenges such as a lack of college readiness and persistent levels of underachievement.

We support the efforts of the Department of Education to increase college access and completion, but urge all educational and policy leaders to focus public attention and public investments not on graduation rates alone but also on ensuring that graduates acquire the full spectrum of skills, broad knowledge, and capacities they need to thrive in a competitive global economy and contribute to building a vibrant and effective democracy.

At the K-12 level, states and school leaders together are taking the lead in defining a new set of common core standards. The federal government has provided strong financial incentives to the states to advance the adoption and implementation of these standards.

Leadership on defining quality in higher education must also come from states and campus leaders working together. The U.S. Department of Education, however, can take active steps to provide enabling environments for this work. Efforts like AAC&U's own LEAP initiative and the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualifications Profile are being used in states across the country to more precisely define reference points for quality in higher education. These efforts can and should be aligned with the common core standards, and the U.S. Department of Education can facilitate this alignment through the development of thoughtful policies, funding initiatives, and creative partnerships.

The bottom line is that the United States must match our new and ambitious goals for college access and completion with an equally ambitious vision for college-level learning. Quality should become the centerpiece, not an afterthought, in our nation's investments in postsecondary attainment.

Carol Geary Schneider