The Problems and Misconceptions Associated with the Completion Agenda

By RoseAnn Foster

From a national to an institutional level, the “completion agenda,” the movement to increase the number of students enrolling in and completing college degree programs, has created a controversy. While on the surface the idea of higher matriculation rates and higher graduation rates seems like a laudable goal, it is often achieved at the expense of quality education. In order to meet this goal, some institutions are reducing or changing credit requirements, which invites questions about the quality of education students are actually receiving. 

President Obama issued a call for increased graduation rates and noted the necessity of a degree to compete in the global economy in his first State of the Union address. However, there are a few problems inherent in this goal. The first is cost. According to Debra Humphreys in “What’s Wrong with the Completion Agenda—And what we Can Do About It,” published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities: “Funding for higher education is being reduced in most states. It is safe to assume that funding levels will remain low, at least in the short term, and probably will continue to decline, especially at public colleges and universities (AASCU 2011). Under these circumstances, we do indeed have to tackle these issues with the same or fewer resources.” Though the completion agenda calls for more enrollees and more graduates, institutions have and likely will continue to have fewer resources to invest in those students’ education.

This leads to the next problem: quality of education. If policy makers and business leaders continue to stress the completion of a degree rather than the education it represents, they are effectively cutting off the nose to spite the face. Students can manage to graduate from college without actually receiving the appropriate preparation for competing in today’s economy. In fact, Humphrys cites, “Only between 5 and 10 percent of college graduates have experienced even minimal global learning (Adelman 2004), for example, and more than 35 percent of college students are making minimal or no gains in their critical thinking and writing skills over their four years in college (Arum, Roksa, and Cho 2011). Employers’ overall assessment of higher education reflects these data: only about a quarter believe that colleges and universities are effectively preparing students for the challenges of today’s global economy (Hart Research Associates 2010).” 

Despite this problem, some institutions are finding it necessary, as part of the completion agenda, to restructure and sometimes, cut courses from the curriculum. For instance, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article by Dan Berrett, “In Curricular Clashes, Completion Can Vie With Quality,” that discusses the controversy created by the Alamo colleges in Texas replacing a second humanities course with a leadership course centered on Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In order to avoid increasing the number of credits necessary for graduation and risk making it more difficult to complete the requirements, administrators simply replaced the second core humanities class with the leadership class. 

As pointed out by Sanford C. Shugart in “Rethinking the Completion Agenda,” published by Inside Higher Ed, learning comes before completion. According to Shugart:

“…the country has got the wrong working theory about completion. It seems to go like this:  ‘If more students completed college, they will have learned more, will contribute more to the local economy and community, and that would be a good thing’ The theory is subtly, but clearly incorrect. It should go like this: ‘If more students learned deeply and effectively in a systematic program of study, with a clearer sense of purpose in their studies and their lives, more would graduate and contribute to the local economy and community, and that would be a good thing.’”

Clearly, the measurement of completion rates do not necessarily directly correlate with institutions producing individuals prepared to compete in today’s global economy. In addition to overlooking the crisis of perpetually shrinking resources at our nation’s institutions of higher learning, the completion agenda ignores what should be raison d’être of of every college and university—the education of the student. 

RoseAnn Foster is a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in English. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.