How To Reform America’s Colleges

“In a single generation, we’ve fallen from 1st place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults,” -President Barack Obama at the University of Texas-Austin, August 2010

Almost four years ago, President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States: that we would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. His reasons were both aspirational and practical. On one hand, the President’s goal is motivated by his belief that education is an indispensable rung on the ladder of success. But, the realities of our economy also play an important role in this goal:

  • Over two-thirds of all new jobs created by that time will require some post secondary training
  • At the current production rate, by 2020, the United States will have 5 million fewer workers with postsecondary education than is needed to keep up with the economy.

These facts understandably stoke pessimism about our current state of affairs. Nonetheless, by focusing on some manageable problems within our system of higher education, we can make headway in realizing the President’s goal.

One driver of our projected shortfall of college-educated workers is our K-12 education system which has given us stagnant graduation rate and stubborn achievement gaps between low-income students and their affluent peers.

However, given the focus on our grade schools in the debate over education, it is easy to lose sight of the unfulfilled potential of our system of higher education.

Higher education itself is contributing to our struggles to meet the needs of our economy. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS),only 46% of college students in the U.S. complete their degrees. In addition, only 59% of those who start a 4-year degree will complete it within six years and barely a third of all those who start a 2-year degree will complete within three years. If twice as many students completed their degrees within these timeframes, we would have millions more citizens with the postsecondary credentials that they need to be successful in the 21st century economy.

These figures have created a new and welcome focus on “student success,” which is defined as retention, on-time completion and gainful employment after graduation from post-secondary institutions.  So what inhibits student success?  There are three categories of explanations:

  1. Academic (students are unprepared or fall into difficulty in their classes once in school)
  1. Financial (short and long term, students don’t have cash to pay tuition and fees)
  1. Psychosocial (death in the family, birth of child, mental illness, general isolation and disengagement, etc.)

An unexpected turn in the dialogue on student success in postsecondary institutions is that almost 80% of all students who do not graduate are in good academic standing.  This means that we must examine and address the non-academic reasons that students do not graduate. Non-profits, local institutions and state entities have embarked on some best practices that have begun to move the needle on these issues.

Outsourced Student Coaching: This is defined as virtual coaches, usually located in a call center, who are assigned to specific students. These coaches advise students on life and financial issues and also serve as a point person connecting students to resources around campus. According to research by the Stanford University School of Education, outsourced student coaching can increase the graduation rate for a cohort of students by up to 13%.  Such an increase would yield millions more graduates. Currently, there are private vendors like Aviso Coaching and non-profits like Beyond12 performing variants of this service.

Micro-Grants: According to the Gates Foundation report, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them”, many students who drop out of 4-year or 2-year institutions do so because of financial duress.  Institutions have found that alleviating momentary disruptions in funds with micro-grants, sometimes no more than a few hundred dollars, can have a demonstrable effect on student success. Public institutions like Middle Tennessee State University have employed this practice.

Decreased Financial Burden: Another method of reducing the pressure of the financial causes of lack of student success is for states and localities to reduce the overall financial burden of attaining a post-secondary education. One of the boldest proposals in the country on this score comes from Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Haslam, who during his State of the State address unveiled a myriad of proposals on post-secondary education. The centerpiece proposal, called the Tennessee Promise, will allow any graduating high school senior in the state to matriculate at any of the state’s community colleges or technical schools for two years free of charge. This approach has been proposed nationally by the Obama administration.

While each of these practices is not perfect or comprehensive, they each bring us closer to student success. Further, they are common sense, straightforward strategies that can find support among people of all political leanings. America’s economic future is dependent upon the genius of each American – we do not have a single one to waste.

Chike Aguh, US


Chike Aguh works at the Advisory Board Company in Washington DC as an Associate Principal focused on using technology to drive excellence and equity in education at all levels. He has worked in education as a government official, teacher, consultant and startup advisor under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Teach For America, Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar, the US Department of Education, McKinsey & Company and the Acumen Fund. He is a board member at InReach, an education non-profit in Prince George’s County, MD; alumni board member at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; President of the Harvard Black Alumni Society of Washington D.C. ; and board member at Code in the Schools, a Maryland non-profit teaching computer coding to underprivileged students. Chike received a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University where he served as student body president, Ed.M in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he received the top award in his program, M.P.A. from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he served as a Presidential Public Service Fellow, and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where he served a Howard Mitchell Fellow.

  • pelyas

    We shouldn’t conflate post-secondary education with the need for a four (or even two) year college degree, particularly when many of those degrees are in the humanities. Instead of emphasizing the need for a four-year college education, we need to push more high school graduates into vocational and technical fields. These degrees consume less time (usually 18 months) so there is a lower opportunity cost, they are generally cheaper, and they prepare graduates for actual jobs that are needed in the economy. The Obama administration’s war on for-profit colleges, which has led to the closure of hundreds of for-profit technical and vocational college campuses is only limiting options for high school graduates who are not prepared for (and will not be well-served by) a traditional college education. Free community college will only overburden community colleges that already are not able to give their students an adequate education.

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