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.


  1. nicole mcdonaldOctober 29, 2013 at 11:02 amReply

    So, Dr. Gardner what is the way/response to address the skeptics, and the faculty skeptics in particular, about the completion agenda?

    • John N. GardnerOctober 29, 2013 at 4:21 pmReply

      For the skeptics of the Completion Agenda, I would respond as follows:
      1. First and foremost I respect your concern that these external pressures may well constitute an interference in our historic prerogatives to be the final arbiters about what students ought to be learning and how we measure that.
      2. I think we need to strive to look at this fundamental question of unsatisfactory completion rates from all sides, educationally and politically.
      3. By most all measures now as a country we are underperforming our peers in the developed nations of the world. This should be a cause for concern for all of us.
      4. The matter of why are so many students underperforming and not completing is a profoundly complex one. But surely, we cannot explain all of this outcome by reference to student characteristics alone, especially their levels of preparedness, motivation and maturity.
      5. When we carefully consider the wide range of success rates with comparable populations of higher risk students as a function of which institutions they attend and what are their actual experiences in college, we have to appreciate that what we educators do and do not do for students also makes a critical difference.
      6. It is those factors then that are most under our control and must be examined and improved: our policies, practices, pedagogies, interventions, attitudes and more.
      7. This is where you come in. We need all of us educators to join the growing national conversation about Completion and the best way to do this is to “mobilize” our campuses to get engaged with this conversation. If we don’t we can’t hope to have any ability to leverage, manage, let alone control the shape the conversation takes and how it impinges on our historic prerogatives.

      John N. Gardner

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