The Downside of the Completion Agenda

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I should start by saying that I do believe that a measure of our effectiveness in higher education is how many students walk through the doors of our community colleges and leave with degrees and certificates. I attended our graduation ceremony last Friday and the beaming faces and happy family and friends is a huge testament to the importance of completion.

However, in a climate where the political and fiscal pressure is intently focused on completion, it is worth considering some of the challenges the completion agenda can pose to our missions. Limited resources and funding challenges adds pressure to this discussion. The completion agenda seems to be a more recent focus because of these pressures. The conversation before was about access and persistence. But the current fiscal crisis, aided by legislative concern over people abusing their educational funding in order to live and not actually to achieve educational goals, drives the completion agenda even further.

Ponder these deep thoughts that came up on the topic with my wonderful cohort of learners in my doctoral program:

  • Access to educational opportunities provide benefit to students and to the community.
  • If we start focusing on completion, one logical route is that we will be more selective about who we let enter our programs, thereby leading to a decrease in access. Where do people who want only 1 or 2 classes fit in?
  • And if you attempt to be more selective, how will you predict success? If you look at an individual’s background up to the current moment you could easily “predict” they won’t complete. Think of women in transition or ex-convicts or teen parents or…you get the picture.
  • Access can be defined as every person’s right to an opportunity. Focusing on completion can mean we begin to triage and the question becomes, then, who will we leave out? This is difficult because we all know stories of students who have succeeded.
  • So, before considering limiting access, what can we do with students when they first come that will help them be successful in getting a degree or certificate?
  • How do we work with students who “come in through the back window?” These are students who start, and leave, and come back, sometimes several times. Often their last quarter is a full drop with F’s across the board, and can be for legitimate reasons.
  • How we as a state system, or even within our country, define completion is key. I hear from different people that in the United States we calculate completion frustratingly differently than what’s done in other countries. If anyone knows more about that please point me to some sources.
  • If a 10 is completion, how can you say that it’s more worthwhile for us to move a student from a 7 to a 10 than to move another student from a 0 to a  7? Of these, who is better served and which scenario offers the greatest benefit to the community?

What are your thoughts? How do you think we should define completion?

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One thought on “The Downside of the Completion Agenda

  1. I think part of the issue is the idea that it is either or. We need both completion measures and measures of how students are meeting their own goals, a particular skill level for example. It is important for both one of our students and our community that she is here taking ES even if it is a life-long project.
    We have to be involved in the development and use of measures or others will develop them for us.

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