Liberal Education

From the Editor

This issue focuses on the completion agenda, that more or less coordinated effort to achieve the national goal of increasing—significantly and quickly—the overall number of college graduates in the United States. From campus, state, and national perspectives, the Featured Topic section provides an overview of the various policies and proposals designed to improve graduation rates and increase the efficiency of degree production, and examines some of the negative unintended consequences that may result from their implementation. The overarching concern expressed by the authors is that, unless it is complemented by sustained attention to educational quality, the completion agenda could undermine the progress currently being made to ensure that all students attain higher levels of achievement on an array of important twenty-first-century learning outcomes—that is, to ensure they receive a high-quality college education that responds to our nation’s contemporary economic and social needs.

It may seem ironic for the higher education community to resist aspects of the completion agenda. For government and philanthropy to join together in seeking ways to get more students into and (more quickly) out of college is, at one level, a show of confidence in American higher education: “We value what you do, and we want you to do more of it.” Yet, although speed and efficiency may be the watchwords of certain phases of industrial production, colleges and universities are not degree factories. The application of managerial principles unsuited to the enterprise would almost certainly be counterproductive, ultimately devaluing the college degree by lowering the quality of the education it represents.

Proponents of the completion agenda believe that the United States must regain its lost standing as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates. The authors in this issue agree, but with the added proviso that we must simultaneously strive to ensure that those graduates are all truly prepared for participation in both the global economy and the civic life of the nation, and that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills that support the lifelong learning needed to sustain success in both spheres. In other words, as Scott Evenbeck and Kathy Johnson put it, “the increase in the number of degrees [must] be an increase in high-quality degrees.”

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