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Scaling Degree Completion: Increased Links Between Completion Colleges and State Systems Critical

The EvoLLLution | Scaling Degree Completion: Increased Links Between Completion Colleges and State Systems Critical
Though it would be challenging for traditional colleges to transition to fulfilling the mission of a completion college, improving the linkages between the two entities could help to drive degree completion toward the nationally set goals.

According to a number of different studies, approximately 46 million adults have started college, but have not completed. For many of these adults, life got in the way—job opportunities, military career, family responsibility, marriage, divorce, sick child or parent, not ready for college, too much fun and not enough studying. Now five, ten, or even fifteen years later, many adults want to return to college to get a better job, change professions, or to complete what they started. Yet many who decide to return find that they are faced with numerous non-adult friendly policies–limited transfer policies, limited prior learning assessment policies, aging out of credit policies, and limited options for earning degrees. From over 40 years of experience in higher education serving adult students, and seeing literally thousands of transcripts, I can attest to the fact that many students have had to repeat a lot of courses, not because they failed them or because they did not fit into their degree plan, but because of institutional policies.

For many adults returning to college, a degree completion is often their best choice. To define a completion college, I will use the definition from Nate Johnson and Alli Bell’s December 2014, Lumina Issue Paper. They defined it as:

  • Primarily focused on bachelor’s degrees
  • Low proportion (less than 25 percent) of first-time, full-time freshman among incoming students
  • High proportion (more than half) of students age 25 and older
  • Separately regionally accredited
  • Heavy reliance on online instruction
  • Extensive us of prior learning assessment
  • Streamline transfer and integration of credit earned at other colleges and universities

You might wonder what a degree completion college looks like. Charter Oak State Colleges is a degree completion college founded in 1973. It has no first-time students—students must have a minimum of 9 credits to matriculate. Average student age is 39 and most come in having already earned 75 credits. About 35 percent go on to graduate school. Courses are totally online, and a student could earn 114 credits in transfer or prior learning assessment or testing. All support services are offered online (tutoring, advising, library, financial aid, admissions, student association, tech support). Students must take the cornerstone course in their first term and complete it with a grade of C to continue at the college, and students must have a C or better in all courses in their major or concentration to graduate, including the capstone course. Students must meet the same general and liberal education requirements established by our state and regional accreditor. The college is regionally accredited. It has no full-time faculty, it has a rigorous faculty and course approval process, and faculty structure involves faculty from other colleges in CT in the policy and curriculum decision-making process. The college boasts over a 96-percent satisfaction rate and a 60-percent six-year graduation rate.

Can a traditional college start a degree completion college or department within its governance structure? Having been the academic dean of two adult serving colleges at two different universities and now serving as provost at a degree completion college, I would say it would be difficult to do. With rare exception, the adult-serving college at a traditional college/university will not have the flexibility afforded a completion college because of internal policies, accreditation standards and internal politics. I, and I am sure others like me who ran adult divisions at traditional campuses, fought to get portfolio assessment or military credits or CLEP exams accepted, only to have the number of credits a student can earn be limited. At completion colleges, the liberal acceptance of these credits is part of who they are as colleges. Completion colleges recognize that college-level learning can and does take place outside of a college.

Can completion colleges scale? A group of completion colleges have been meeting to discuss this very question. The answer is yes, but to do so they will need some assistance. Most of the degree completion colleges are public. Some are small. And most do not have national name recognition because they do not have large marketing budgets and they don’t have a football or basketball team to put them in the public eye. An infusion of marketing dollars to develop a completion college campaign would be a huge win for our country—its workforce and its economy. Based on our experience with the Go Back To Get Ahead (GBTGA) project we administered for Connecticut, an initiative sponsored by our governor to bring adults back to one of the state colleges in the Connecticut Colleges and Universities system to complete their degrees, we saw how an infusion of marketing dollars could increase enrollment of adult students.

The degree completion colleges have room to grow. They have the expertise and the policies in place that are adult friendly and the academic quality and rigor of traditional colleges. They have the graduates and the data that demonstrates their success. And they have a business model in place to support their endeavors. However, they can’t meet Pres. Obama’s goal of 10 million more graduates by 2020 or Lumina’s goal of 60 percent of Americans having degrees or credentials by 2025 by themselves. However, linking the completion colleges with more traditional colleges can be a win for both. Again using GBTGA as a model, the completion college took the lead role in administering the program, but students could return to any of the 17 colleges in the state system and they did.

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