John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Everybody Gets It: The Completion Agenda

John N. Gardner

This posting is inspired by something I have started doing in the autumn of my career—going to an annual meeting for Presidents. After all, I am a president of a non-profit organization that serves American higher education and this means that many of the people my Institute staff colleagues and I are serving are presidents and chancellors.

The meeting in particular is higher education’s oldest gathering for its senior leaders, the annual meeting of The American Council on Education. This is the academy’s most senior policy advocacy stakeholder group.

And this year’s annual meeting was all about The Completion Agenda: the intense focus on increasing graduation and completion rates. Everybody seemed to get the importance of this, all except I suppose the elites for whom this has never been a problem. The idea of this being  the preoccupying focus of any meeting when I started my work on “the freshman year experience” back in the 1970’s would have been unthinkable. So I tell myself that even though my country is retreating from most components of the social justice agenda, that it least it is focused on the completion agenda. And I am thankful for that.

But does everybody get it? Well, of course not. The senior leaders get it. But there are many in the academy that are not invested in this issue. And who might they be?

Well, they are the faculty and staff in institutions that are experiencing very rapid growth rates seemingly no matter what the state of student success practices. When the students keep coming no matter what we do, it is understandable that some of us educators don’t really have to buy into the completion agenda.

And then there is the professoriate. Many of us still think in these ways, understandably I could argue:

  1. What is all this fuss about? Many of today’s students do not belong in college. They lack the requisite levels of maturity and academic preparation, and focus, too.
  2. I don’t really understand why retention/completion is any of my responsibility. Instead, it’s the responsibility of parents, families, and the admissions officers who should be recruiting me better students. And it definitely is the responsibility of the students themselves.
  3.  All this talk about retention is really the substitution of a business model for an educational paradigm for what we should be doing in higher education. This counting of students for revenue purposes is just one more insidious example of the corporatization of the academy and I am not having any of it.
  4. This talk about retention and completion: completion for what? The discussion totally misses the purposes of higher education to which I have dedicated my whole professional life.
  5. This focus on retention/completion is just one further example of the dumbing down of the academy. And I am not having any part of it.
  6. Retention is an absolute minimum standard for students. It says nothing about what they are learning; what they can do; what value we have added. Surely we can have a more substantive conversation and resulting set of goals for higher education than this minimalist approach.
  7. The question shouldn’t be “what can/should we do to retain more students?” It should be: “What can we do to increase student learning?” Or “What would we have to do to create an excellent first year of college? If we did that, we could greatly increase our retention!”

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not blaming my faculty colleagues for not getting on the completion agenda bandwagon. They have thoughtful objections concerns about this focus and must be heard. If we don’t address these ways of looking at our completion agenda challenges we can never be more successful. I understand why many of my colleagues view this student success work in these lights. This is a challenge I embrace. Long live academic freedom so that all of us are more explicit, honest and purposeful about the purposes of higher education. We must constructively address these skeptics about the merits of the completion agenda.

The Movement is Spreading and Deepening

A sign of the institutionalizing of any educational reform movement, of course, is the spreading and deepening of the activity in terms of adoption and success. The “movement” I am most interested in is the so-called “first-year experience” or “college success” or “student success” movements, which I am sometimes credited with launching. I did play a role in that, for sure, but I certainly had a great deal of help, especially from my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, and later from the Institute which I founded.

One manifestation of this “spreading and deepening” is the slow but gradual proliferation of state and regional convenings of higher educators that I and my two non-profit organizations focused on student success have NOT organized and hosted.

There are such initiatives flourishing now in the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio; and now a newcomer, but a real “comer”—in Massachusetts which is a gathering for the entire New England region.

I participated in the First Annual New England Student Success Conference, organized by my friends Robert Feldman and Mark Lange and their outstanding team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There first gathering was held on October 8 and had as an original planning goal 250 attendees. It was “sold out” and “closed” at 300. Talk about demand. When I left the meeting, the organizers were already planning next year’s gathering. If you are interested you should contact either of those gentlemen. I recommend you request from them a link to the session materials. I attended two sessions which were both outstanding: one by a splendid team from Framingham State University who illustrated how to translate a complex action improvement plan into sustained implementation to reap increased student success and retention (about10%); and the second by Jane Wellman, the provocative and profound scholar of higher education cost assessment. We all need to take her advice and start assessing the cost benefits of our first-year initiatives and we will be inspired by the results of her model for doing so.

I think it is most fitting that the region where “the first year” in American higher education began in 1636 has its own “network” for which the foundational steps were laid at this first meeting. There is nothing like local grass roots action to institutionalize any movement.

Congratulations from a recovering former Yankee to my New England colleagues who are moving to the next level in promoting student success.

-John N. Gardner