Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

College Completion: What If the Focus Was On the Student?

February 27, 2013

One of the most important social, economic and political questions facing America today is how to increase the number of students obtaining college degrees.  The problem is that while 44 percent of all US undergraduates are enrolled at two-year public and independent colleges, just 29 percent ultimately transfer and only 16 percent of students who began their education at two-year colleges go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

While serving as president of Bucknell University, some of us decided to address that by thinking about this from a student’s perspective. We established a five-year pilot transfer program to bring two-year college graduates to the campus.  These students graduated at rates slightly better than the impressive, four-year overall university-wide graduation rate of about 90 percent.  From their experience, we learned the following:

Early identification is critical, with a commitment to the transfer program as early as the first semester at community colleges.

Community college counselors must be assisted by field “success” counselors employed by the access program but located at the community college. Ongoing and informed mentorship to bridge familial and cultural ties, academic readiness, and four-year faculty expectations must be maintained.

An individual-to-institution conversation about what it will take to succeed upon admission to the four-year institution and how to prepare for academic success through coursework at the two-year level is necessary.

A “safety net” of concerned four-year faculty and staff must be available though the handoff to create a seamless student transition.

Rigorous assessment protocols must be established to ensure individual success.

Students who become alumni need to be followed in an ongoing baccalaureate outcomes study to establish objective metrics that measure the success of the program.

To move the pilot toward implementation at the national level, several higher education leaders established the Edvance Foundation to promote “big ideas” that could produce systemic, progressive change in American higher education. 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided a planning grant to move the program from an institutional to national level.

The work began with a 18-state listening tour and series of national webinars.  Corporate supporters, including Pfizer and AT & T, also lent support.  Many state community and independent college associations recognized the project ‘s value, and over 800 higher education leaders, including 400 community and independent college and university presidents, participated in these discussions and offered valuable comments that helped shape the final program.  During the planning phase the Edvance Foundation undertook the largest and most comprehensive study to date of transfer policies, practices and protocol between two-year and four-year colleges and universities. The results will be released nationally this spring.

The Edvance Foundation is now ready to move this work toward its next phase – by hiring a full-time director and launching a organization called the Nexpectation Network. Housed at the Edvance Foundation offices in Boston, it will grow in four phases over 10-12 years, and will open a series of interconnected state and regional offices across the country. “Success” counselors, located on community college campuses, will work individually with eligible two-year students, who upon graduation would be admitted into the four-year program. The program will incorporate the key learning from the pilot program, including early identification, intensive support, student feedback and an ongoing outcomes study.

We anticipate the program will expand to public four-year and upper level institutions in the final development phase, ultimately serving at least 100,000 students annually.  The program will become largely self-sustaining through member and utilization fees charged to colleges and universities, already field tested during the listening tour.

So many programs devoted to college success today require major state policy changes and sweeping and complicated bureaucratic articulation agreements that effectively diminish the capacity of the student to navigate and succeed in reaching the end goal of a degree. 

By moving consideration from institution or systems and directly to students – while still meeting application and readiness guidelines required for admission on a case-by-case basis – the Nexpectation Network will remove critical barriers to postsecondary access and completion.  In the end, the student is the winner.

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