John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Let’s Hear It for the Completion Agenda

John N. Gardner

I have been laboring in the vineyard of student retention for four decades. And many times I felt like I was a lone wolf. No one else really seemed to care.

But now things are different. All sorts of people have discovered “the Completion Agenda”.

No doubt about it; getting students into college has been replaced as an emphasis by getting students THROUGH college.

Many states now have “Completion Agendas.” Our work has truly been discovered by policy makers.

And by foundations, some very powerful, wealthy, and influential foundations, including at least one of those that have supported my work. And they are providing very important support for helping our country’s neediest students increase their changes of college degree attainment.

And I am delighted to see that they have joined the club. Now they run the club. And I believe, overall, this is a good thing. Now the previously unsung workers of the completion agenda, the retention agents, are getting their time in the sun.

But I must admit that in reviewing much of the discourse about the completion agenda – we seem to have a new “end” – the end is completion for the sake of completion. But is that really what the proponents intend? Though it may be the consequences of the way they are going about their work.

Is it just a matter of getting people through?

Of credentialing?

What are the most important credentials to have these days? Are they necessarily degrees?

And are those credentials being provided by the traditional providers of credentials: colleges and universities? Not entirely. We know the conversation is shifting to ask whether or not there might be other kinds of providers (like employers) who might provide more valuable forms of credentialing.

But it strikes me that there is now a tremendous hurry. “Time is the enemy of completion” the mantra has become. And, yes, time costs money, and many of our students don’t have either time or money.

So some of us find ourselves asking:

  •  Completion for what?
  • What do we want our students to be learning?
  •  What is the value added, besides the credential?
  • What do we want them to know and to be able to do?

And not just in the cognitive domain but in affective domain and life skills as well.

I hope that college will always be more important than simply for finishing. That what is learned will really matter. But I am not so sure any more.

Perhaps the question has always been: “Education for what?”

It certainly is that now more than ever.

Let’s work together to lay out a vision for that question. As is so often the case in life: the questions are more important than the answers.

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