Liberal Education

It's Not So Easy: The Completion Agenda and the States

Back in 1958, the great rocker Buddy Holly told the world “It’s So Easy.” Holly is long since dead, but his thinking lives on today in the completion agenda, whose proponents believe that a few technical management changes will suddenly and dramatically improve higher education’s productivity. But Holly was talking about falling in love; unfortunately, getting unprepared and unmotivated college students to learn more and graduate faster is a different problem entirely.

Although its leaders are actively working with a full range of constituents, the completion agenda (also referred to here as the “reform” movement, since it encompasses a wide array of proposed changes) is focused mainly on state policy leaders, governors, legislators, and boards of higher education. Complete College America (CCA), a national nonprofit organization established in 2009 to increase educational attainment in the United States, is the standard bearer of the completion agenda. This is in part because it represents a synthesis of the best thinking of the “reformers” and their associated foundations, and in part because CCA’s primary agenda has been adopted by the US Department of Education (2011).

At the core of CCA’s strategy is a proposed shift to state-level performance funding: “Funding should shift from simply rewarding enrollment to valuing outcomes, such as credentials awarded or classes successfully completed. Funding is a powerful incentive, and rewarding performance allows states to align their fiscal policies with statewide goals for workforce development and economic prosperity.”1 This shift is necessary, CCA asserts, because “state appropriations typically are driven by enrollment with funding based on the number of students enrolled” and “as a result, colleges have a financial incentive to boost enrollment at the start of the term, rather than make sure students successfully complete classes and earn degrees.”2 In this context, “performance” is really a euphemism. The strategy would be more accurately described as “pressure-punitive funding,” because it is designed to force institutions to change and punish them if they do not.

CCA’s premise is that colleges and universities will not do the right thing unless they are paid to do so: it’s all about the money. Why don’t they improve on their own? Because, as numerous reform authors tell us, college and university administrators and faculty (1) don’t care deeply about student success to graduation, and (2) aren’t good managers because they don’t focus on productivity analysis and don’t use enough instructional technology.

Two prominent reformers, Dennis Jones and Jane Wellman, believe that change is possible: “Costs can be contained without sacrificing either quality or access. This will require better management of resources, including using data to make decisions, paying attention to spending, and looking at the relationship between spending and results” (2009, 5). Add to this a recent report from the National Governors Association’s Complete to Compete initiative, which identifies “three powerful forces” that affect the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of states: (1) “the economy’s increasing demand for more educated workers”; (2) the need to “compete for fewer resources because of the fiscal challenges states face today and will face in the future”; and (3) the “swelling tide of more students . . . concentrated among the groups that have historically entered and completed college at lower rates.” The report goes on to say that the “key ingredient” in meeting these challenges is “a strong accountability system made up of relevant performance metrics” (Reindl and Reyna 2011, 4). Or, consider the similar perspective of higher education pundit Kevin Carey, who believes that we could greatly improve performance if only we would rank our institutions properly. To that end, Carey advocates for the creation of a federal rankings-based accountability system:

[T]he reality is that colleges and universities do not have to teach undergraduates well in order to prosper. Higher education institutions do what all human institutions do: they respond to the incentives and values of the systems and markets in which they exist. They can’t be regulated or threatened into improving their service to students. They have to want to change, not just vaguely or to a slight degree, but so much so that they’re willing to spend the resources and endure the conflict that change inevitably brings. The new rankings would provide those reasons. (2006, 21)

Thus, the reformers are embracing the Buddy Holly strategy: “It’s so easy.” This theme—make a few technical management changes and great things will happen—runs through the reform movement and helps account for its broad appeal, especially among state leaders.

Why focus on the states?

States are the principal target of the completion agenda because it is at the state level that political pressure can be most effectively linked to drivers of institutional change. Trustees are the other available lever, and reformers have worked actively to connect to them. But trustees are close to their colleges or universities and, accordingly, are quite familiar with their objectives as well as the hurdles they face. In particular, given their close connections to faculty and administrators, trustees tend to be unreceptive to arguments such as “people at public universities don’t really care about teaching or graduation,” “managers don’t use data to make decisions,” and “presidents and faculty are aloof from society and don’t much care about the social and economic impact of their institutions.” Trustees are also highly likely to understand the negative consequences of budget cuts.

Governors and legislators, on the other hand, generally approach college and university issues from the perspective of annual or biennial budgets. To individuals in state government, the idea that you could have twice as many graduates with no additional investment is very appealing. There are lots of mouths crying loudly for the additional money that would be spent if higher education stays on the traditional path. It’s also the case that state policy leaders necessarily deal with issues from a high level of abstraction. It simply is not feasible for them to dig deeply into every issue or to seek subtle countervailing points when an apparently credible group is making a bold, sensible-sounding reform pitch. In this context, an argument for transformative change through a simple, if simplistic, funding formula often falls on fertile ground.

The appeal of “it’s so easy” also applies to understanding the rising cost of higher education over time. When there’s a simple explanation at hand—i.e., poor management and misplaced faculty and administrator priorities—few are willing to examine the complex economic forces that are driving costs relatively higher. Indeed, there is an active “it can’t be true” resistance to the economic arguments presented in major studies like Why Does College Cost So Much? (Archibald and Feldman 2010).

States leading pressure-driven reform

Efforts to implement pressure-punitive formula reform are relatively far advanced in both Ohio and Tennessee, and Texas is currently on the verge of implementation. Ohio, a state that has long been associated with enrollment-based formulas, switched in 2009 to “performance-based funding,” largely in the form of support for course completion—though graduation rates will be transitioned in as a factor as well. The developers of the new system recognized that a simple change would have negative consequences for less selective institutions: it’s obvious the students at a selective state institution will, at least initially, successfully complete courses at a much higher rate than those at a standard state institution. As a result, the developers worked hard to apply various weightings to offset selectivity, particularly through discounts provided for “at-risk” students, a category initially based on income level alone but later expanded to include age, academic preparation, and race/ethnicity” (Moltz 2009).

Despite Ohio’s earnest efforts to offset selectivity, the least selective universities are projected to do least well under the new formula in the initial years, which could encourage them to become more selective. It also seems improbable that the less-selective universities will be able to close the gap over time. One reason is that not all “at-risk” students, as defined by factors such as income level and race/ ethnicity, are the same. For example, the selective state institutions will inevitably get a higher proportion of the low-income and underrepresented minority students who have attended religious schools with a greater focus on discipline and the value of learning. Finally, there is abundant evidence that the least selective institutions in Ohio have been working hard for decades to be more successful with poorly prepared students. The fact is, it’s not so easy—and changing the variables in a formula won’t change that.

In 2010, Tennessee passed the Complete College Tennessee Act, which will dramatically change the way Tennessee funds its higher education system: “Within five years, Tennessee colleges and universities will receive state funding based on how many graduates they produce and how well their students are progressing toward their degrees. This funding system is unique and will make the state a much-watched test-case for accountability in higher education.”3 Anticipating the consequences of this new pressure-punitive formula, University of Tennessee President Joseph DiPietro has said he expects that “we will see some institutions with improved performance who receive fewer dollars because others improved even more. That’s when the in-fighting will start” (Jones 2011). Unfortunately, since presidents and faculty have long been trying to improve the success of underprepared students—and Tennessee has actually had a graduation-oriented funding formula in place for decades—the in-fighting isn’t likely to be over how all universities can get free access to a leading institution’s super success strategy.4 Instead, as with previous attempts to implement performance funding, the in-fighting will be over the validity of the data. Thus, it’s reasonable to suppose that legislative and institutional attention in Tennessee will soon be focused more on data definitions and weightings than on how to achieve needed outcomes.

Texas has a strong but undersized higher education system and a fast-growing population, combined with a desire to be the state with the lowest taxes in the country. In response, Governor Perry has launched a Texas-sized productivity agenda.5 To put the universities on the defensive, allies of the governor gave higher education critic Richard Vedder (2011) raw workload data forced from the University of Texas. The resulting study of faculty productivity was the subject of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and has been widely cited as a reference point for understanding university inefficiency. On the less positive side, Vedder’s critics have noted that the study’s methodology was deeply flawed—failing to distinguish between full-time and part-time employees, for example. They have also noted that it suffered from an array of analytical errors, such as ignoring differences among disciplines (Ura 2011). There’s an active struggle in Texas (see below), but an imposed pressure-punitive formula has the strong support of both the legislature and the governor.

Promising state strategies

Maryland and Virginia have taken very thoughtful approaches to improve accountability and performance, and have shown good results. However, since they have not implemented pressure-formula approaches, and since they are not buying into the “it’s so easy” rhetoric, neither state has been identified as a model by the reform movement.

In 2003–4, the University System of Maryland launched the Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative, through which a number of administrative improvements have been implemented.6  Notably, teaching loads at undergraduate research universities were increased by an average of 20 percent. Yet by anticipating public pressure and digging into the tough issues in advance, the initiative appears to have strengthened public and legislative confidence in higher education. Maryland has set an example of sophisticated reform.

In 2005, Virginia passed the restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act. This was the result of an effort by several universities to win greater administrative autonomy and to free themselves from state regulatory barriers. In exchange for a renewal of their public mission, the act provides state colleges and universities with greater operational and administrative autonomy.7  The institutional performance standards, benchmarks, and targets established by the act provide a far more flexible set of measures than those advocated by Complete College America (although recent changes in Virginia show the impact of that organization). Moreover, the measures don’t drive dollars but, rather, are used to justify greater autonomy. Virginia is further distinguished by its Grow by Degrees (GBD) effort. The fruit of a business-higher education alliance, GBD is focused on raising awareness of the importance of higher education to the state’s economy. While advocacy for higher education is intrinsic to this effort, so are agreements to improve productivity and performance.

Given the appeal of the “it’s so easy” argument, there would be far more undesirable change in the states if it weren’t for the opposition of colleges and universities. In most of the country, the state-level responses have been institution-oriented and uncoordinated; there has not been much systematic pushback to national “reform” ideas. Texas is changing that. Perhaps because the attack was so sharp and so clumsy, leaders have rallied to protect the University of Texas—and now also Texas A&M and other universities—from the productivity push.8  The newly formed Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education is actively challenging the kind of analysis provided by Richard Vedder as well the simplistic thinking of the completion agenda.9 Importantly, the coalition effort quickly drew significant business support and appears to have been instrumental in engendering a more cautious approach on the part of “reformers.”

Issues going forward

The US Department of Education cites Winning by Degrees, a report prepared by the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, as evidence that it is possible, with no additional investment, to increase college attainment rates by 50 percent by 2020 (Auguste et al. 2010; Walters 2011). The report is interesting, but to make the math work nationally would require changing the structure of most universities to match that of the stripped down, mostly online, adult-focused institutions that rank highest in productivity.

But why, when students already can choose from an array of institutions, including those praised in Winning by Degrees, do we need to restructure the whole system to fit a single mold? We now have a rich and diverse higher education market with options that appeal to many different types of students. What’s wrong with choice? Take the McKinsey argument and combine it with the pressure-punitive formula approach and you have a major irony: both the political left and right are advocating a Soviet-style command economy for higher education—and, at least in Texas, Soviet-style universities.

Much of the debate in Texas centers on the various threats to quality that are likely to materialize if the pressure to graduate exceeds the ability to learn. These include threats not only to research and scholarship, but also to the integrity of the curriculum. Faculty will never go there first, but if cuts become too severe, we can anticipate reduced math and science requirements and other changes that would undermine educational quality. There is much that can be done at little or no cost, and there are actions—not recognized by the productivity agenda—that could have a huge payoff. Colleges and universities are routinely saddled with regulations and restrictions that ensure inefficiency; states need to back off. Even the NGA recognizes the potential benefits of deregulation (Reindl and Reyna 2011, 13).

Colleges and universities have accomplished a lot through outsourcing, but they need to do a lot more. There is no reason for a college or university to maintain any operations that are not directly academic. Similarly, too many institutions suffer from the “not invented here” syndrome. Increased collaboration—especially on the instructional side—is essential. Collaborative start-ups can be difficult psychologically, and there are usually significant up-front costs, so this is one area where both pressure and support from states would actually be helpful. Yet even if “Standard State” were given tons of additional money, it still may not be able to get its students to the same level of success as their better prepared peers at “Selective State”—and it is the selective institutions that typically receive substantially more funding. There is no good evidence that money can buy parity or that it is more likely than pressure to foster success. It’s a fact that, when dealing with people, intangibles like motivation and self-confidence matter. And the students at Standard State are less likely to believe that educational success is important, and far less likely to believe that they can learn (Walters 2010). We need to invest in some serious research on how to overcome this lack of a pervasive educational culture.


The results so far show that it’s not so easy. They also demonstrate the dangers of being overly optimistic about the power of being data focused—about the so-called “culture of evidence”—to drive significant change (Rutschow et al. 2011). The effort to improve remediation currently being led by Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting community college students, offers a good counterexample of how to prioritize key problems and engage faculty in developing solutions.

Too many academics spend too much time whining about legislators. That’s not only unproductive, it’s also wrong. The fact is that, with surprisingly few exceptions, state legislators are intelligent, hard-working, thoughtful, and moral individuals who want to help people and improve the economy; they would never deliberately do anything to the contrary. They’re buying into the completion agenda primarily because it’s all they’re hearing. That’s the heart of higher education’s challenge today. The pushback in Texas is necessary but not sufficient. Attacking the attackers provides needed balance, but it certainly doesn’t solve the problem. Also, the Texas effort is focused on research universities, while the greatest danger from the productivity agenda is to the nation’s equally essential “Standard States.”

Colleges and universities need to organize nationally—and in a very visible way—to do three things: (1) embrace the positive aspects of the completion agenda, such as the focus on adult education; (2) promote further efforts at continuous improvement, as in Maryland and Virginia, but include radical outsourcing and collaborative strategies; and (3) develop more systematic research and development projects to improve learning and success to graduation. One promising step is the creation of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (see, though a more broadly based group will probably be needed to achieve a comprehensive solution.

In the debate over the future of America’s colleges and universities, the money and momentum right now are with higher education’s version of the chattering classes. If this continues, we’ll have a disaster. The narcotic appeal of “it’s so easy” is not only pointing to foolish actions, it’s leading us away from the real problems. It’s time to counter with a coherent and aggressive agenda that is truly based in higher education.


Archibald, R. B., and D. H. Feldman. 2010. Why Does College Cost So Much? New York: Oxford University Press.

Auguste, B. G., A. Cota, K. Jayaram, and M. C. A. Laboissière. 2010. Winning by Degrees: The Strategies of Highly Productive Higher-Education Institutions. Washington, DC: McKinsey and Company.

Carey, K. 2006. College Rankings Reformed: The Case for a New Order in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Education Sector.

Haurwitz, R. K. M. 2011. “Pressure Building on Faculty to Boost Graduation Rates,” The Statesman, January 9,

Jones, D. P., and J. Wellman. 2009. Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about Higher Ed Finance. Washington, DC: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

Jones, R. A. 2011. “‘Outcome Funding’: Tennessee Experiments with a Performance-Based Approach to College Appropriations.” National Crosstalk 19 (1),

Lederman, D. 2011. “Does Performance Funding Work?” Inside Higher Ed, July 25,

Moltz, D. 2009. “Adopting Performance-Based Funding.” Inside Higher Ed, April 30,

Reindl, T., and R. Reyna. 2011. From Information to Action: Revamping Higher Education Accountability Systems. Washington, DC: NGA Center for Best Practices.

Rutschow, E. Z., L. Richburg-Hayes, T. Brock, G. Orr, O. Cerna, D. Cullinan, M. R. Kerrigan, D. Jenkins, S. Gooden, and K. Martin. 2011. Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges. New York: MDRC.

Ura, J. D. 2011. “Another Look at UT Productivity Report,” The Texas Tribune, June 9,

US Department of Education. 2011. College Completion Toolkit. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Vedder, R. 2011. “Time to Make Professors Teach,” Wall Street Journal, June 8, article/SB1000

Walters, G. 2010. “The Real Challenge for Higher Education.” Inside Higher Ed, July 15,

———. 2011. “More Degrees/Dollar—Damn the Quality?” Inside Higher Ed, April 11,


1. “Essential Steps and Model Policies,” Complete College America, accessed October 19, 2011,

2. “Shift to Performance Funding,” Complete College America, accessed October 19, 2011, Essential Steps Shift to Performance Funding.pdf.

3. “Complete College Tennessee Act Summary,” Tennessee Higher Education Commission, accessed October 19, 2011,

4. Tennessee’s longstanding performance funding policy has had little discernible impact (Lederman 2011).

5. The impetus for the new productivity agenda was described in The Statesman: “‘We have to find ways to get faculty to understand that all of us work for the state, that the state is in financial crisis and that we have to get better results for the same amount of money or even less money,’ said Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, whose agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, has floated a number of reforms for lawmakers to consider. ‘That’s the reality we’re in’” (Haurwitz 2011).

6. See

7.“Higher Education Opportunity Act (Restructuring),” State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, accessed October 19, 2011, Restructuring/restructuring.asp.

8.“A Response to the Seven ‘Breakthrough Solutions’ and Other Proposals for Higher Education,”

University of Texas at Austin, accessed October 19, 2011,

9.The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education has launched a sophisticated and informative web site; see

Garrison Walters is executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

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