While, society widely accepts the importance and value of higher education as a public good, fewer than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates complete a college degree within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This reality places pressure on college campuses to improve time to completion for their students.
Addressing the lengthy six-year timeline begins with a broad focus by increasing college completion rates. According to a report by California Competes, California needs to produce 11.9 million degrees – inclusive of bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees and one- and two-year certificates – by 2025 to remain economically competitive. Currently, however, the state is slated to produce only 9.5 million degrees, resulting in a degree gap of 2.4 million.
To achieve real student success, higher education institutions can narrow or close the degree gap by accelerating student pathways to completion.
Taking six years to complete college also contributes to higher student debt. Additional time spent earning a degree versus earning an income, along with the rising costs of college itself, reinforce doubts among many potential students as to whether they should aspire to earn a college degree.
According to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), 55 percent of 2013 California graduates had college loans, with an average of $20,340 per borrower. While this is lower than the national average, the high cost of living puts Californians at risk of exceeding the national average soon.
Looking at options
The intent is to establish options that ensure, once fully phased in, every student will be able to cover college costs with an appropriate family contribution for middle and higher income families, earnings from a part-time job, and federal financial aid for eligible students. While this is an important first step, the jury is still out on how financial-aid consolidation into a single entitlement grant will remedy cost increases while maintaining equity throughout the state.
As higher education leaders, we believe the state’s colleges need to focus on key areas that directly contribute to a student getting a degree. And luckily, potential solutions are plentiful. They include:
Some of these strategies are low-hanging fruit; others require more time and resources to make happen. However, one thing is sure: if implemented, more students — and particularly more underserved students — will find themselves with degrees in hand.
The promise of California’s Master Plan was that college would be a benefit guaranteed to all Californians who sought to pursue it. If the impending gap in degrees is not addressed as a priority, we will be conscribing at least 2.4 million Californians to a future in which they will not contribute as fully or as meaningfully to their communities or to the state’s varied regional economies.