Liberal Education

Students Must Not Become Victims of the Completion Agenda

The completion agenda seeks significant increases in educational attainment, and its goals are quite laudable. The United States is lagging behind other industrialized nations in terms of the proportion of adults holding postsecondary degrees, and states have been challenged to implement policies that ensure improvements in degree completion rates—particularly for students from underrepresented groups. On the surface, these policy shifts should prove advantageous to students. Students should attain their degree goals and enter the workforce ever more efficiently, with reduced levels of debt incurred. One component of the completion agenda seeks to award more dual credit, with high school students completing college credits prior to enrolling in college. Advanced Placement examinations, early colleges, and other programs have served students and the nation well in providing high-attaining students a head start on their college careers.

Yet, we offer a caution. Might the completion agenda result in less educational attainment for graduates if that agenda results only in the accumulation of credits, however awarded? Might it work against the improvements we have seen in terms of the “value added” of a college degree (Astin, Astin, and Lindholm 2011), particularly given our recent progress in sharpening attention toward student learning outcomes? Might these shifts ultimately threaten the core principles of a liberal education, and undermine the critical foundation that a solid high school curriculum coupled with degree attainment in higher education can provide for lifelong learning? Developmentally, high school students have different needs than beginning college students, and it is unclear whether the “efficiency model” might ultimately undermine students’ ability to cultivate the habits of mind and the moral and ethical values that are sought by employers, graduate schools, and professional programs.

Here we emphasize what we believe is missing from the completion agenda, from the standpoint of its implications for student learning. We first consider the broad sweep of evidence that informs the use of high-impact educational practices and designs for student success. We then consider how one particular aspect of the completion agenda—dual credit—threatens to undermine proven conditions for student learning. Finally, we suggest ways that higher education institutions and policy makers might adapt to these new conditions to ensure that students are not ultimately the victims of policy changes intended to enhance their success. It is imperative that the increase in the number of degrees be an increase in high-quality degrees.

Setting the stage for enhancing student learning

The focus on student learning methods and outcomes over the past decades has significantly enhanced academic achievement and persistence rates for college students. Shortly after the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983), which called for reform in elementary and secondary education, the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in Higher Education released Involvement in Learning (1984). This national report set the stage for renewed emphasis on high expectations, and elucidated the following three conditions of excellence in undergraduate education.

1. Articulating and supporting high expectations for students. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) classic research demonstrating that teacher expectations actually exert causal effects on young students’ performance highlighted the importance of both articulating and supporting high expectations. There is an important semantic distinction between “high standards,” which can imply exclusivity, and “high expectations,” which connotes Sanford’s (1968) optimal blend of challenge and support. The potential for each student to succeed in meeting high academic expectations must be facilitated through learning environments that are both challenging and supportive. The “Wingspread Declaration on School Connections” (2004) reflected the nation’s continued attention to both the potential for each student to succeed and the importance of such high expectations. The subsequent focus on broadened access to higher education among students with backgrounds that traditionally have been underrepresented is a function of this intentional approach to providing high expectations and support for each student.

2. Involvement in learning. Students who are involved with their instructors, with the material they are learning, and with one another in contexts associated with learning are more likely to be successful. One of the most important initiatives coming out of higher education in the 1990s was the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), for which the factors associated with engagement became the heart of the instrument. Prior and subsequent research from the learning sciences indicated that heightened engagement is associated with deeper learning (Pugh et al. 2010). At about the same time, Barr and Tagg (1995) published their seminal article, “From Teaching to Learning,” which helped launch a paradigm shift that focused on learning outcomes (Tagg 2003).

The majority of faculty in higher education traditionally paid great attention to the content and methodologies within their disciplines, which are still the primary determinants of faculty recognition and reward systems (Arum and Roska 2011). Yet Barr and Tagg espoused a more flexible structure for courses, along with the design of educational environments to support students’ construction of knowledge through active learning. This shift did not relegate teaching to a subsidiary role, but instead challenged teachers to search creatively for new methods that help students attain learning outcomes. Some faculty began to adopt alternative pedagogical practices that support student learning and enhance student success, many of which were informed by cognitive psychology and the emergence of the learning sciences (e.g., Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 1999; Halpern and Hakel 2000).

The last decade has been characterized by increased focus on both student engagement and the association of that engagement with learning. John Gardner and his colleagues launched an international effort to focus on student success in the first year (Barefoot et al. 2005; Upcraft, Gardner, and Associates 1989). Student attrition in the first year remains a significant challenge on many campuses, but the first-year seminar and other supportive practices are demonstrating their effectiveness in increasing student success. The introduction of learning communities has been proven particularly important. In his ten-year retrospective on NSSE, Kuh (2007) maintained that he would implement interdisciplinary and engaging learning contexts for entering students as a primary means of improving undergraduate learning—which defines the learning community model (Smith at al. 2004).

In 2000, the Association of American Colleges and Universities launched the Greater Expectations initiative to help shape the baccalaureate in the twenty-first century.  That initiative and the Liberal Education America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, which grew out of Greater Expectations, have resulted in significant educational reform across the nation. These key initiatives represented consensus building across the nation on the baccalaureate for the twenty-first century and resulted in key articulations of both student learning outcomes and best practices in higher education. Bringing together the results emerging from NSSE with the LEAP initiative resulted in the identification of ten high-impact practices associated with increased student engagement and success. Kuh (2008) challenged institutions of higher education to ensure that all students engage in at least one of these high-impact practices within the context of their majors.

3. Assessment and feedback. Psychologists have long demonstrated the positive impact of providing feedback as a mechanism for enhancing performance (Kluger and DeNisi 1996; Schmidt and Bjork 1992). Faculty began to recognize that the performance of many students was enhanced when they received early and frequent feedback as opposed to the standard midterm and final examination grades. To some degree, the assessment movement in the country gained momentum as a function of the Involvement in Learning (1984) report calling attention to the importance of frequent assessments of learning accompanied by authentic feedback. After years of inattention to the articulation and assessment of student learning outcomes by many faculty, the academy began to study and to implement in systematic ways the programming that might result in enhanced student academic achievement. At the same time, accrediting bodies and governmental agencies reinforced this movement in the drive to strengthen accountability. 

Fast-forward to the completion agenda

Given the paradigm shifts and structural changes that have evolved in higher education since 1984, it is not surprising that educators and policy makers have strategically envisioned ways of maximizing efficiencies and introducing courses for college credit in high school that will give students a head start on reaching their degree goals (Kleiner and Lewis 2005). One effort, the national Early College High School Initiative, has begun to make headway in increasing the educational attainment of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as from low-income families (Nodine 2009). Students are able to enroll in an integrated and aligned high school/college curriculum, and college courses are offered at no cost while students are enrolled in high school.

In most early colleges, high school students enroll in some classes on college campuses that include college students as well. Ideally, students are provided with support services from their high school to help ensure their success, and partnerships between high schools and universities help facilitate seamless transitions between high school and college. Webb and Mayka (2011) recently reported that early college high schools now operate in twenty-eight states, enrolling over fifty thousand students. Many of these students are from underrepresented groups. In 2009–10, 70 percent of the students enrolled in early college schools were students of color, and 59 percent were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The college-going rate of early college high school students is quite impressive given these demographics: of students who graduated from an early college school in 2008, 2009, or 2010, 73 percent were enrolled in a postsecondary educational setting, as compared with the national college-going rate of 63–69 percent. The early college model is excellent, particularly when students are enrolled in college classes on college campuses. Students who are prepared for such enrollment are well served. Rather than replicate a college experience elsewhere, a model for early college that calls for enrollment in “normal” college classes is the collegiate experience. 

The aspirations for the early college model go well beyond dual credit. Nancy Hoffman, a vice president at Jobs for the Future, the national nonprofit that has guided the early college initiative since 2002, indicates that first-generation students gain the insight that they are as entitled as any student to go to college if they are prepared. Through the experience of doing some college work, they also gain evidence that they can succeed. Thus, the principal benefit of the early college model is that it helps ensure students have the preparation and the persistence to succeed (pers. comm.). 

Yet caution is warranted. Too often, dual credit may be awarded for high school courses taught by high school instructors without sufficient attention to replication of expectations and learning (Peters and Mann 2009). While there is salutary attention to a seamless and collaborative system of P–20 education, the awarding of college credit to high school students must also be associated with parallel expectations for student learning and academic achievement. The rigorous methodologies used to assess early colleges are often not in place. Though the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships serves as a national accrediting body that provides measurable criteria for assessing quality in concurrent enrollment programs, the standards may be difficult for institutions to meet without additional resources. States may impose caps on tuition charged for dual credit (and waive tuition for students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch), making it difficult for institutions to create infrastructure to support the faculty site visits, alumni surveys, and end-of-term student assessments that are necessary for ensuring high quality. State mandates for accepting such credit have to be coupled with assessment of student learning, and the significant enhancements to the student learning experience in college must somehow inform the work of instructors who teach dual-credit courses. 

It is too early to determine the ultimate impact of dual-credit enrollment on two-year and four-year degree completion rates. And it is too early to assess the learning and academic achievement as programs are increased. There have been considerable challenges associated with aligning curricula to ensure that student learning outcomes for courses taken in high school are comparable to corresponding college courses. Matthews (2010) asserts that we need policies that insist upon a seamless educational experience for students as they move from secondary through postsecondary education, but these are only beginning to be developed. Some eighteen-year-olds are arriving at four-year institutions as “transfer students” with sixty or more credits completed. Such high numbers of transfer credits reduce these students’ eligibility for financial aid and discourage them from participating in traditional first-year experiences, such as learning communities (Foley et al. 2011). Indeed, some students may not be willing to enroll in a first-year seminar given that the maximum number of 100-level courses has already been distributed into their degree plans. Swail (2011) recently asked, “If students are able to take these college-level courses in high school, what does that say about the high school curriculum? Why have it at all?” In its worst form, dual credit may suggest to high school students (and their parents) that a college degree is simply an amalgamation of 120 credit hours that are defined by content areas rather than by attainment of student learning outcomes. From this perspective, whittling away at that number early in the educational process is a mark of efficiency—as well, perhaps, as a mechanism for improving social justice. However, little consideration is given to the intellectual development that should ultimately be produced through the completion of a college degree. 

Ideally, we need to extend the high-impact practices that have begun to define the college experience down into high schools. Many early college units do this, but early college is not illustrative of most dual-credit programming. This is particularly important, given that the results of such educational practices have been disproportionately beneficial for low-achieving and minority students (Brownell and Swaner 2010). We must promote students’ intellectual development through a fusion of curricular and cocurricular experiences, interspersed with reflection and experiential learning. The attention campuses have paid to the first-year experience, especially in terms of the first-year seminar and learning communities, has resulted in students making the transition to successful university study as measured both by engagement and by student success. Yet students arriving with a good deal of dual credit miss that transition to successful university study. 

What is the answer? One possibility is to ensure that the high school experience is an early college experience, preferably located on a college campus. While this may be ideal for some high school students, it is not geographically or financially feasible on a large scale. Another solution is for campuses to develop learning communities and first-year seminars that are appropriate for high school students who have earned dual credit. First-year experiences for this new cohort of transitioning high school students could be grounded in a framework steeped in Conley’s (2008) analysis of college readiness. Students could participate in learning communities in which they receive support for developing cognitive strategies (e.g., analysis, problem solving), content knowledge (e.g., writing skills), academic behaviors (e.g., self-monitoring, time management), and contextual skills for navigating the college system (financial aid, the norms of academic culture) that Conley maintains are critical for a successful transition to college. How can we make the senior year of high school more like college? This is a primary mission of the early college model. These programmatic strategies are best approached by having faculty collaborate across high school and college in order to enhance shared understanding of what students bring to college and what colleges expect of entering students. Offering early college experiences to high school seniors would enhance the students’ success as they move on to college. 

Secondary and postsecondary institutions must share a compass

After many years of research on enhancing student engagement and success, higher education now has explicit articulations of what is needed to support student success as well as a roadmap for getting there. Just as the LEAP Principles of Excellence in higher education argue that students need a “compass” or a clearly delineated pathway to support their success (AAC&U 2007), the academy itself has needed such a thoughtful and documented pathway for supporting students. Higher education is thus at a cusp—a time when we know the means to transform student success, but also a time when calls for accountability stress rapid movement to graduation. Higher education, working with secondary education, must move toward a continuum where expectations are mapped from high school through college. How might students be engaged earlier?

Wenger and his colleagues articulated the concept of a community of practice that is formed when a group of people with a shared concern or interest interact regularly and engage in collective learning (Wenger 1998; Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). Members of a community of practice share a common vocabulary and set of assumptions about their work, and the community develops as its members work together toward common goals. Teachers in specific disciplines, high school teachers, high school counselors, academic advisors, and student affairs personnel engaged in the hard work of supporting teaching and learning are each members of such communities, often marked by professional associations, journals, conferences, and opportunities for professional development and networking. Might we aspire to create a common community of practice that spans high school and college teaching and learning as a mechanism for sharing a compass to support student success? There are models that could be emulated. In central Indiana, Project SEAM involves collaboration among fifteen school districts and five postsecondary institutions to create seamless transitions between high school and college. The California Partnership for Achieving Student Success is designed to collect data about student success and transition throughout K–16 education, providing a unique repository of information that supports collaborations across educational sectors to improve student learning through best practices. Models such as these require leaders dedicated to collaboration across traditional boundaries, the resources to support a shared evidence base, and opportunities to engage communities of practice in addressing the common goal of student success.

The completion agenda is likely to continue to exert pressure on high schools to award dual credit to help students reach their degree goals more efficiently, and it is critical that educational systems adapt successfully to the evolving landscape. If this agenda moves forward focusing primarily on efficiency without regard to the quality of learning, the value of higher education credentials will diminish considerably. We recommend the following four strategies as a guide for those of us on campus.

1. Faculty and students must become reflective practitioners. Students ideally should become self-regulated learners (Pintrich 2000), which means that they can specify learning goals and formulate a plan for achieving them, track progress toward their goals, and implement different strategies when the original ones are not successful. That is, students must use their metacognitive knowledge to guide their actions as learners (Flavell 1979). Unfortunately, college students frequently lack such metacognitive knowledge (Graesser 2011), creating opportunities for faculty to cultivate this form of understanding in their students. Faculty can benefit from a burgeoning literature in the learning sciences to guide them in this work, and through reflective practice they will ideally come to see its value in terms of resulting in enhanced learning. Secondary and postsecondary educators as well as students must engage in coordinated reflective practice so that assignments are aligned with shared goals and transferable evidence so that students and the academy share the same compass at all points. 

2. Academic structures and faculty roles must be revisited. The traditional ways in which decisions are made in higher education about teaching assignments and curricula are usually centered on departmental interests and faculty privilege, rather than on what is optimal for enhancing student learning and promoting student success. This must change. Academic structures must be revisited, and faculty work should be redefined. Academic departments, organized by disciplines, are the contexts in which faculty work is carried out, reviewed, and rewarded. Within departments, faculty members typically focus on undergraduates who are declared majors, as well as on graduate students—students for whom access and success are invariably assured. In contrast, entering students enroll in courses that may not be taught by tenure-track faculty members, and may not be perceived by instructors as “their” students because they may be bound for other majors. Tests are frequently content-based and associated with curricula that stress broad and superficial coverage. We need to continue to reform higher education at the faculty level through professional development and to provide academic departments with models for enhancing student success. “Gateway” or service courses should be taught by the best faculty, and creative delivery mechanisms should be employed to ensure that beginning students are immediately engaged in their learning. Academic advisers and student affairs personnel should be integral partners in the development of these alternative ways of helping students learn.

3. There is great value to time on task, both for faculty and for students. While efficiency is an ideal in many sectors of the economy, there are limits to how deeply it can infiltrate academic culture without threatening the essence of who we are as educators, and ultimately harming the students we’ve been entrusted to teach. Thoughtful engagement of students through high-impact practices and the provision of routine feedback takes time, and is enhanced through professional development. Some of this faculty work can be supported through technology (Niess 2005). Some of it can be enhanced through trained teaching assistants and peer mentors that complement the work of faculty members. Similarly, students must recognize that deep learning takes time, thoughtful practice and reflection, and responsiveness to feedback. Students can participate in supplemental instruction (e.g., Stone and Jacobs 2008) and experiential education, and must be held accountable to the high expectations set by instructors. Though aspects of education can be made more efficient, it is a grave mistake to assume that slapdash approaches to teaching and instruction will result in anything but superficial learning and disengaged faculty. Campuses can reorganize the work so that students find contexts to increase their time on task—contexts where faculty, staff, and other students work together, in new ways, to support students and their learning. 

4. Institutions can and must play a critical role in student success. One might argue that these recent reforms in higher education finally recognize Kurt Lewin’s (1936) wisdom in articulating that behavior is a function of the person and the environment, or B=f(P,E). Campuses have sought to recruit more well-prepared students by competing for students with high SAT scores, which is often more a proxy for family income than for student achievement. Mortensen (2005) has pointed out the strong relationship between family income and baccalaureate degree attainment. Putting the onus for student achievement on the student and not recognizing the institutional role in student success perpetuates the success of high-income students and threatens that of first-generation students who may need additional support. We must identify and deploy interventions that allow low-income and first-generation students to be successful across a range of institutions. It is these students who will define our country’s future, and it is a matter of social justice to expand programming and support that will ensure their success. Institutions must accept responsibility for serving, educating, and proudly graduating the students they are accepting. 

Yet the larger question is finding means to ensure that dual credit and the completion agenda benefit student learning. How can we move to a community of practice? How can we assure deep learning in high school and in college, moving across these sectors? How can college faculty, high school teachers, college and P–12 administrators, and policy makers collaborate to ensure quality learning in the dual-credit domain? What role does state policy have in ensuring that quality is as much a consideration as efficiency?

Expectations from across society, coupled with the expectations for increased student success within the academy, have resulted over the past decades in increased attention to the contexts associated with student success. This combination of internal and external pressure has resulted in higher education identifying ways to support student success as well as student access. For too long, widening participation in higher education has resulted in an open door that is a revolving door, particularly in terms of the low-income, first-generation, and diverse students who increasingly define the student bodies on America’s campuses. Finding ways to support students in their first years, where these students have not met success, and identifying means to support their achievement makes America’s promise of success coming from educational attainment real.

Conclusion

The completion agenda needn’t be pitted against the promising reforms we’ve seen in higher education. At the extreme, the completion agenda could indeed result in significantly less achievement. The challenge is to articulate and support high expectations, to involve students in their learning, and to provide assessment and feedback. We must not buy into simplistic models that stress content as opposed to student learning. We must be wary of learning outcomes that reflect superficial knowledge built through the fragile process of memorization, and instead support students’ acquisition of competencies that demand deep learning that is integrative and constructed through critical inquiry. Rather than a dichotomy of educational practices, these are merely points along a continuum that is continuing to evolve as a function of educational and economic forces that interact over time. We challenge faculty to embrace opportunities for professional development and to cultivate synergies through faculty communities of practice that result in innovations. We must engage in rigorous assessment and evidence-based decision making to identify which innovations are most impactful for cultivating competencies in our students that will ensure their success as citizens and in the workplace. In many institutions, the work is already beginning to be done differently, and it is clearly working. It is imperative that we reframe our work in the context of the secondary-through-postsecondary continuum.

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Scott Evenbeck is founding president of the New Community College of the City University of New York, and Kathy E. Johnson is dean of University College and associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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