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.

Constantly Reassessing Individual Purpose

Any of us who have ever worked with college and university students know that one of the most important things we have to help challenge and support students in is their development of a sense of purpose. Of course, this doesn’t apply just to students. It also applies to us. What is/are our purposes? What drives us? What do we live for? What do we work for?

I find myself constantly asking this, or reasking this with respect to my own work. I am one of the fortunate ones in our society, largely due to my age, in that I don’t have to work, that is I don’t have to work to earn money. I could be fully retired and live comfortably. So why do I keep working?

Well, because like other people, I like to do what I am good at, what I know, what gives me satisfaction, fulfillment, gratification and so on. I also work because there is really nothing else right now I would enjoy doing for a significant amount of my waking hours. In addition to my professional work I do have other interests: hiking, running, enjoying the dramatic and musical arts, friendships, and especially my precious time with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and our respective families.

But about a purpose for my work. Even though it, the work, has had a fairly constant purpose now since about 1974 when I first became Director of the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina, I find that I occasionally refine my mental interior language of how I define my purpose. This has happened again this past week during my visit to South Africa.

One can’t look around him/herself thoughtfully in the US and not be struck by the dramatic differences in wealth of our fellow citizens. And we should be aware that one of the products of our society these days is the output of proportionately more poor, sick people, especially children, and a shrinking middle class. And an American such as myself can’t spend any time in South Africa and realize that they too can be described as characterized by great differences in wealth, the differences between the haves and the have nots. But unlike us, they are gradually growing their middle class. May that trend continue.

As I was leaving South Africa today, the lead headline above the fold in the International Herald Tribune was “The Super-Rich Pull Even Farther Ahead”. The article continued to describe a cross cultural phenomenon,namely, the creation since 1980 of “an international economic elite whose globe trotting members have largely pulled away from their counterparts.” Now we are not talking here about just Americans. This is an international trend manifested in Canada, the UK, Scandanavia, Germany and most impressively in developing countries like India and China.

But, as the Tribune reported: “The trend is particularly stark in the US where from 1980 to 2005 more than 80% of the total increase in income went to the top 1 percent of the population. The gap there between the superrich and everybody else is now greater than at any time since before the Depression of the 1930’s.”

And what does this have with my sense of purpose? This helps me redefine my purpose. I view this extraordinary growth in inequality in my country as a great injustice, a threat to our democracy, a blunting of our world admired civil rights movement. I have long defined my work as an effort to help more Americans join the great American middle class. I still work for that. But I have to look beyond that because so many of our social, economic, governmental policies are making it much harder to grow the middle class. I conclude that I am morally offended by this trend and that my purpose has to be to help my higher education system close this shockingly unfair gap between the super rich and everyone else. I think we all need to continually redefine our purpose(s).

-John Gardner