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Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010

CEEP policy brief urges more intense effort to ensure more earn college degrees

Study unveiled this week as co-authors speak at the College Board National Forum

Oct. 28, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new policy brief from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University emphasizes a need for better data and more targeted efforts to ensure historically underrepresented college students complete coursework and earn degrees.

"College Persistence and Completion Strategies: Opportunities for Scaling Up" is being published this week as two of the report's co-authors speak on these issues at The College Board's National Forum in Washington, D.C. The report is authored by CEEP Director of Education Policy Terry Spradlin, Research Associate at the Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education at Michigan State University Nathan Burroughs, CEEP Assistant Research Scientist David Rutkowski, and CEEP Graduate Research Assistant Justin Lang.

Terry Spradlin

Terry Spradlin

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Spradlin and Rutkowski are part of a panel on Friday, Oct. 29, called "Programs and Strategies for College Access, Persistence and Completion," which also includes Don Hossler, professor of higher education at the IU School of Education and director of the Research Center of National Student Clearinghouse. The College Board National Forum attracts educators at all levels of the profession from across the country for the three-day event focused on discussing vital issues for improving education.

The brief notes the troubling national statistics on college completion. Federal education reports show that fewer than three in 10 students starting at a community college full-time earn an associate degree in three years. A little more than half of students pursuing a four-year bachelor's degree full-time finish in six years. For traditionally underserved college populations, the numbers are worse -- only 49 percent of Hispanic students and 42 percent of African American students get a four-year degree in six years, compared to 60 percent of white students.

"There is growing consternation about the U.S. slippage in the world ranking of the percentage of young adults with a college degree," Spradlin said. "Once ranking first by this measure, the U.S. now ranks 10th. Signifying the importance of college completion, leading national organizations are calling on raising college completion for adults from about 40 percent of the population to as high as 60 percent. Both the policy brief and panel discussion are timely in shedding light not only on the problem but on effective strategies and solutions."

Among the findings in the brief is that there is little data on college access and completion that can be compared across states, making comparisons of which programs work difficult. Another finding notes that college access is still a problem, although some states -- including Indiana -- have increased underrepresented population enrollment. Even with some increases in enrollment, college completion rates remain low among these groups.

Financial aid also appears to be falling short of meeting all costs related to college. The report cites costs outside of tuition that are hampering students' achievement. And many schools do not evaluate how well retention efforts work with their students.

"As policies shift towards expanding funding for retention-based programs, evaluation of these programs becomes crucial to assess success and minimize waste," Rutkowski notes.

David Rutkowski

David Rutkowski

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The policy brief provides several recommendations to improve college completion rates:

  • Expand financial assistance to meet the costs above tuition. The authors provide IU Bloomington's Twenty-first Century Scholars program as a model.
  • The Twenty-first Century Scholars program should expand by seeking alumni of the program to help fund more retention intervention efforts, which to date are funded through temporary grants.
  • Better data collection should occur across the country, including a tracking and notification system to identify struggling students and allow intervention.
  • State policymakers should sponsor research of retention strategies at colleges and universities, perhaps creating pilot programs to study retention efforts. In Indiana, researchers could latch onto the state's development of a preschool-to-employment data system to help study students' transition from two-year to four-year institutions.
  • Create targeted efforts for at-risk students focusing on interventions that fit their unique circumstances.
  • Create strategic retention and persistence efforts at each college to best meet the needs of the particular college student body, integrating these efforts into the broad mission of the institution. Persistence should be the top emphasis for each student's first year with staff across campus dedicated to the effort.

The full report is available online at

Joining Spradlin, Rutkowski and Hossler on the panel are Marcelle Heerschap, dean of student academic affairs, advising and retention at George Mason University, as well as Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a national non-profit organization working to increase college completion rates. Jones was Indiana's Commissioner for Higher Education for 12 years. CEEP's Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement, will also take part in a panel called "Strengthening Student Engagement through Early College Access."

CEEP, one of the country's leading nonpartisan education policy and program evaluation centers, promotes and supports rigorous evaluation and research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state, national and international education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education. To learn more about CEEP, go to