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Online Classes and College Completion

By Rob Jenkins

The latest buzzword in higher education is "completion." It combines the idea of enrollment growth with what we used to call "retention"—that is, getting more students into college and then keeping them there long enough to graduate or (in the case of community-college students) transfer successfully to four-year institutions.

The completion concept is nothing new. We've been focused on increasing enrollment since I started in this profession more than 25 years ago, and we've also spent countless hours talking about how to do a better job of retaining and graduating students. The results have been mixed, at best. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment grew by 9 percent in the 1990s and a whopping 38 percent from 1999 to 2009.

And yet, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan told PBS in a 2010 interview, completion rates have stagnated during those same two decades, with the United States slipping from first place to ninth among industrialized nations. "Other countries have passed us by," he said. "They're outworking us. They're outcompeting us." In other words, we've been doing a decent job of getting students in, but a poor job of getting them out with a degree in hand.

This time around, though, colleges may have added incentives to make retention a priority. President Obama himself has identified college completion as central to his economic agenda, calling education "the economic issue of our times" and vowing that America will once again lead "the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade."

Moreover, governors and state education leaders have begun hinting strongly—and, in some cases, doing more than hinting—that future funds for colleges and universities may be tied to graduation rates rather than just to enrollment, as has traditionally been the case. As a result, community colleges, which are always looking to enlarge their slice of the pie and constantly fearful lest their already meager rations be further reduced, are rushing to get on board with the completion agenda.

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