Published on 2012/04/13

Closing Attainment Gap Requires Belief Changes

Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, former Director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Hilary Pennington wrote that the attainment gap in America is getting increasingly wider.

In her article, she proposes three suggestions to help move higher education back in the right direction.

First, she proposes that institutions need to focus on internal practices to improve student success rather than remaining stagnant and blaming outside influences. She suggests institutions customize learning and support systems, redesign placement tests and developmental/remedial education offerings and reducing time to degree completion.

This, she says, reflects the change in today’s the majority of today’s students who “are nontraditional in some way—they work and go to school; they don’t live on campus; they take longer than expected to graduate”.

She suggests that as part of the effort to improve internal practices, colleges and universities should also be entering into strategic partnerships with other higher education providers to facilitate more ‘swirl’ student success.

Secondly, she suggests placing students into highly-structured academic programs to accelerate their progress toward degree attainment. She argues that a study by the Community College Research Center showed that students who enter a specific program of study in their first year are more likely to earn credentials and/or transfer than students who choose their concentration after a few years.

Finally, she argues that workforce preparation and liberal-arts degree competition are not mutually exclusive. In this sense, she is taking a step away from the traditional stereotype placed on community colleges, in that they are mostly suited to provide job training. She argues that, in fact, liberal arts courses are widely taken by community college students and that the diversity among students in community colleges can actually make their philosophically-charged discussions even more enriching.

Ultimately, Pennington concludes, the changes that must happen to truly facilitate higher education’s innovation must come from the institutions themselves, as it is a belief system that is largely to blame for the current state of American higher education.

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