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Inspiring Institutional Culture Change with Completion

 Inspiring Institutional Culture Change with Completion
The completion target will lead to a culture change across the postsecondary education space to make higher education more student-centric and outcome-focused.
Completion targets create angst for traditional educators; not because students do not graduate from institutions of higher education but more for the cultural change that the targets necessitate. Many argue that the quality of an institution’s postsecondary program should be measured by its graduation rate, while others say the quality of a curriculum cannot be measured by graduation.

So how do we cross this void to find common ground in the era of the completion target?

1. Focus Will Shift to Accountability

The quality of higher education is traditionally measured by a process of peer review facilitated by accreditation. At its core, the system is comprised of experts reviewing other experts. The idea is that only a peer could review the work of either an institution or individual in higher education. This tradition is heavily biased; inefficiency and a lack of standardized measures are part of the process. Of course, the system was not built with regard to outcomes or efficiency; it was about peer-reviewed quality.

The culture of educational quality created silos of subjective evaluation rather than objective measurement, facilitated by peer review. Traditional accreditation was never meant to have measurable outcomes as we understand measures in other industries, like manufacturing. Operations and programs were evaluated, patterns of evidence considered, dialogue created and all of this was assumed to lead to a quality education. Graduation was not considered an outcome metric for the quality of education. The culture of quality needs to change to a culture of completion and accountability.

Is it realistic to say that a quality program or institution of higher education should graduate at least 60 percent of its students? Let’s look through the lens of other industries. Is it realistic to say a hospital should save at least 60 percent of their patients, or a service company should achieve at least a 60 percent satisfaction rate? These industries would say, “Of course!” But in higher education, we have considered much less than 60 percent as acceptable for far too long.

The new targets will force a cultural change from quality to accountability, and students will benefit.

2. Postsecondary Institutions Will Become More Student-Centric

Great research has come from institutions of higher education, but, not all institutions are research institutions. Traditionally, the institution has been where faculty develop and build new knowledge, then share it with students. This process produces benefits, but they are difficult to measure. Do distinguished members of the faculty graduate more students? We review faculty outcomes, but the connection to students has always been more of an assumption than a measured outcome.

Resource reduction, increased accountability and compliance reporting will force higher education institutions to measure student graduation rates, student employment rates and student debt. Much of this is already required of the for-profit higher education industry, but now it will be necessary for all institutions of higher education as student focus becomes a mandate. Faculty members, as employees, will be measured for production rather than just individual quality of output. Faculty performance has usually been measured by amount of research, frequency of publication and prestige in their particular field. Graduation, on the other hand, is thought to be dependent on the amount of effort a student put into the program. The new target will change performance to production that is measured by graduation; student-focused education.

The completion targets will change institutions from faculty-centered to student-centered.

3. Community Colleges will be Better Understood

Community colleges have a mission to serve the community, which is not always measurable by the number of graduating or transferring students. In fact, the graduation rates for these institutions are often relatively low. Community colleges train students who require specialized skills. Local citizens come to a community college to learn something new, often not for credit.

It is simply not realistic to mandate a graduation target for a group of education providers that cannot control the quality of students admitted (these colleges offer open enrollment). These colleges also enroll many students looking for short-term, non-credit job training, meaning that they do not graduate with a certificate. Community college does not work with the same quality of input of raw material as a four-year research or private institution. Imposing a 60 percent graduation imperative on a school that has no input control diverts from the community college mission.

However, the accessibility of community colleges has opened doors for many people. Serving students would seem to mean moving them towards graduation, on its face. Community colleges need to train all of the noncredit and certificate students who make our societal infrastructure function. We should look to create new definitions for what graduation means or how we measure what graduation should accomplish.

If graduation means that a student has been awarded some certification, regardless of the name of the award (certificate, certification, degree, continuing education unit, etc), or means that they have transferred into a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree, then holding community college to the new target is challenging but not unattainable.

The new targets will force schools to change their culture and processes to better measure what the target demands: more students graduating and succeeding in the workforce.

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