Editors’ Notes


Study after study has shown that postsecondary education is associated with higher earnings; unfortunately, the United States fares poorly among other industrialized nations in postsecondary attainment. In 2008, among other industrialized nations, the United States ranked 12th for citizens aged 25–34; and only 29.4% of our African American population and 19.2% of our Hispanic population aged 25–34 had an associate degree or higher (College Board, 2013). In response to these concerns, the Obama administration early on set forth a goal of America having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world as part of efforts to revive the national economy. This was followed by a $20 million grant program to address the issue under the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Other federal funding initiatives followed.

With the lead of the federal government, a national College Completion Agenda developed. The Lumina Foundation weighed in and established its Big Goal to “increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality [two- or four-year college] degrees and credentials [from 39% of the population] to 60% by the year 2025” (Russell, 2011, p. 3), an increase of 23 million graduates above current rates. In response, postsecondary associations, funders, and institutions have joined forces in many ways to define the issue and identify solutions. These national completion initiatives include, among others, the following: The College Completion Agenda sponsored by the College Board; Access to Success sponsored by the National Association of System Heads and Education Trust; Complete College America sponsored by a consortium of funders including the Carnegie Corporation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and Ford Foundation; and Achieving the Dream (Russell, 2011). These national initiatives have done a good job of defining the problem, raising awareness, proposing solutions, and supporting efforts to increase completion. However, the recommendations tend to be general.

In this volume of New Directions for Community Colleges, we present practical strategies and solutions drawn from the field to advance the College Completion Agenda. Each of these strategies and solutions addresses a key aspect of colleges that can be the focus of efforts to support the College Completion Agenda. Some address the internal world of America's colleges, such as the role of leadership or using data, while others address the context within which our colleges act—linking to high school college readiness efforts or partnering with other institutions to collaborate on defining student learning outcomes at the discipline and degree level. Some strategies are designed to improve student achievement for those at great risk for noncompletion—students in remedial or developmental courses—and other strategies are designed to improve academic completion rates for all students. Some focus on academic factors and others focus on nonacademic student supports.

What all of these have in common, though, is their intentional design to improve the likelihood that students will persist to a college degree. These are not initiatives designed primarily to raise awareness, mobilize support, or promote legislation. These are strategies and solutions implemented locally at the institutional level to improve student completion rates at colleges.

Furthermore, these strategies and solutions are designed to ensure a focus on quality. Many commentators, pundits, and critics have noted that a focus solely on the outcome of completion rates can sacrifice quality for achieving a target. The chapters in this volume demonstrate that quality is a necessary aspect of increasing completion rates. The focus is on understanding and improving the student experience so completion becomes the likely outcome of enrollment.

The foreword by Walter G. Bumphus, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges, describes the College Completion Agenda—its development, evolution, and progress to date. Bumphus also places the Completion Agenda in a historical context.

The first chapter, by renowned college chancellor/president Byron N. McClenney, addresses the issue of leadership. McClenney presents lessons learned about the central role college leaders fulfill in moving the completion agenda forward. One could argue that each subsequent chapter is dependent on McClenney's.

The next three chapters address internal systems and functions that chief executives of community colleges can examine at their own institutions. The first discusses the role and uses of data. Phillips and Horowitz discuss the importance of data to understanding the impact of policies and practices designed to move the completion agenda forward. The authors argue that although data collection, storage, and reporting systems must be useful and usable, creating a data-driven culture must also include understanding how individuals process information and promoting organizational habits. They draw upon their decade's worth of experience at the Institute for Evidence-Based Change working with colleges to use evidence to drive improvement.

In the next chapter, Jenkins and Cho discuss the critical importance of helping college students enter into a program of study as soon as they enter college. They argue for a continuous redesign process and extend the previous chapter's focus on collecting data in support of evidence-based improvement. Both authors are researchers at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, focusing on student persistence, retention, and completion.

In the third, Venezia and Hughes discuss reforming developmental education at our nation's colleges. Also referred to as remedial or precollege courses, the authors argue that current practices work against completion. They present alternative strategies being tested at colleges around the country demonstrating early success in moving students to college-level coursework and, ultimately, completion. Both authors have been researching the issue, including the student perspective on advancing through remedial education, for many years. Venezia is an associate professor of Public Policy and Administration at the California State University, Sacramento, and the associate director of the University's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy. Hughes is the executive director of Community College and Higher Education Initiatives at the College Board.

The next two chapters encourage college leadership to work with partners external to their institutions. Valdez and Marshall discuss the need for colleges to partner with feeder high school districts to align high school exit expectations with college entrance expectations. They make the case that the Common Core State Standards can support these efforts, but unless discussions occur between the two segments, alignment is left too much to chance. They illustrate the impact of alignment with a partnership that resulted in the English Curriculum Alignment Project (ECAP), which led to reduced placement into remediation and greater academic success in college English courses. Valdez and Marshall work closely with intersegmental professional learning councils throughout the nation.

Kolb, Kalina, and Chapman present Tuning—an effort that brings colleges and four-year institutions together to define student learning outcomes (SLOs) within disciplines for associate, bachelor, and master degree levels. Funded primarily by the Lumina Foundation, the outputs of Tuning are designed to improve college completion by aligning assessments, curricula, and courses to agreed-upon SLOs and clarifying expectations for students. The effort also eases transfers among institutions (including from two- to four-year institutions) because there are agreed-upon degree expectations. Kolb is a project officer for Tuning USA at the Lumina Foundation, Kalina was the vice president for Tuning USA at the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, and Chapman was a Tuning associate.

The volume closes with a discussion of financial aid by Julia I. Lopez. Lopez is the president and CEO of the College Access Foundation of California, which is a large private foundation committed to increasing the number of low-income students who attend and complete college across the state. In the chapter, she discusses the importance of financial aid to supporting the completion agenda and includes the personal perspective from students.


  • Brad C. Phillips is the president and CEO of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change and a data coach for Achieving the Dream.

  • Jordan E. Horowitz is the vice president for Foundation Relations and Project Development with the Institute for Evidence-Based Change and formerly senior project director in Evaluation Research at WestEd.