Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

 Email  Share  Print

Attainment in America: Where We Go From Here


Cathy A. Sandeen



“The four As”—access, affordability, accountability, and attainment—have become so ubiquitous in discussions about higher education that they’ve almost become a mantra. Unquestionably, all four challenges—particularly affordability—are urgent. But there’s a good reason why attainment has become such a singular preoccupation for higher education leaders and policymakers: Only 42 percent of Americans aged 25–64 have an associate degree or higher, and only 32 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a report last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet by 2018, two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require some level of postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education in the Workforce. That’s a big gap to fill, amounting to 8 million to 10 million additional Americans who need to find a pathway through our postsecondary system.

There is no shortage of ambitious attainment goals floating around: Many serious organizations and people have called for the nation to dramatically ramp up postsecondary degree and certificate completion by as soon as 2020.

But if the United States is to regain its preeminent position in postsecondary attainment, we need to make three fundamental changes: We need to make nontraditional students—particularly adult students— the core of our comeback strategy.

We have to reconceptualize higher education in ways that reflect that priority, starting with the term “nontraditional” itself; “post-traditional” more accurately reflects the growing demographic majority of such students.

And finally, to make the large-scale changes necessary to meet our goals, we need to harness the combined will of the entire higher education community— especially higher education leadership.

Those are big changes. Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch: The American Council on Education (ACE) has a long and successful track record of helping post-traditional students through its GED® test and prior learning assessments such as the ACE CREDIT® recommendation service. And ACE’s new Center for Education Attainment and Innovation has already begun leveraging research and fresh thinking about how best to help colleges and universities graduate more students.

As we work together to chart the way forward for improving attainment, we don’t yet know exactly which path will lead us most efficiently to the best results. We do know, however, that all of us working toward dramatically improved postsecondary attainment in the United States must come together behind the following imperatives. The dimensions of our national need require nothing less. 


We Must Update the College Student Archetype.

We tend to think of a college student as an 18- to 22-year-old, full-time residential student who moved into the dorm with the help of mom and dad. For many higher education leaders, this archetype is ingrained in us partly because that was our own personal experience, and it remains possibly one of the most pivotal and transformative parts of our lives.

But the world has changed. The traditional student is now in the minority. Nearly three-quarters of all college students in the United States can be characterized as “post-traditional” students. Nearly 40 percent of all undergraduate students are over 25, and projections by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the proportion will continue to grow.

Such students are not just older than their traditional classmates: They tend to work full-time, or have dependents—including multiple roles as parents and caregivers—or they serve in the military, or some combination of these. They need the flexibility to learn online or on schedules that accommodate their careers and families.

One size, shape, or type of higher education no longer fits all. We must do a better job of understanding students’ unique needs by listening to them and considering challenges from their perspective. We must shatter the outdated archetype of college students, and adapt traditional modes of instruction to meet different students’ needs.

We Need to Look Beyond the Bachelor’s.

There is no doubt that the bachelor’s degree is the centerpiece of U.S. higher education, and will remain so despite recent criticism about its value. Individuals who earn a four-year degree have higher lifetime earnings on average, as well as greater social mobility. However, to meet attainment and workforce development goals, we need to shift our thinking. Given the exigencies of work schedules and family responsibilities, sub-baccalaureate attainment may be the most practical first step for students.

Most national attainment goals now also include sub-baccalaureate postsecondary credentials and quality certificates with labor market value, as well as degrees. With all the focus on a four-year degree, we may have forgotten that postsecondary certificates have existed somewhat under the radar for years: Many well-paid jobs are performed effectively by individuals who hold certifications rather than degrees. Increasingly, future certificates should also be designed as “stackable,” building related competencies in a logical, modular sequence that might eventually articulate into a degree at traditional institutions.

We also need to continue leveraging what post-traditional students—especially adult students— have already learned: Prior-learning assessment is becoming an increasingly important mechanism for improving attainment. Credit by examination, such as Advanced Placement and College-Level Examination Program exams, is already readily accepted by most institutions. Military service members can also receive credits for the high-level technical training they complete as part of their service, using them to jump-start completion of a degree program. ACE has offered this service for both military and corporate education and training for almost 50 years, and is poised to expand it.

We Have to Shift Our Focus from Inputs to Outcomes.

We are heavily oriented toward inputs in our current system of higher education. The logic seems to be that if we have the best faculty, students, facilities, the right amount of “seat time,” and enough financial and other resources, we naturally will have good outcomes. But with the greater attention to quality and accountability, as well as the need to flexibly serve adult and other post-traditional students, we are seeing a necessary shift from inputs toward measurable student-learning outcomes. Graduation rates measure one outcome, of course, but more discrete, granular measures of student learning—more assessment to measure student learning and less assessment for compliance, for example—need to continue evolving.

We are also learning that outcome measures can be embedded in the learning process itself. Technology- enhanced instruction, whether fully online or integrated into a classroom setting, employs adaptive systems and predictive analytics based on cognitive science to provide rapid feedback to students as they progress through their studies. Depending on preparation levels, learning styles, extra-curricular time demands, and other factors, different students may complete the course at radically different paces, providing a customized and personalized experience.

Taken a step further, this practice leads us toward a competency-centered approach that focuses on carefully assessing what students are able to do rather than how much time they spend in a course or program. This tectonic shift challenges many existing structures, practices, and policies, but it addresses many of the core challenges faced by the growing majority of students who require more flexible learning structures, lower-cost postsecondary pathways, and more and better outcomes assessments. As the higher education community works to boost postsecondary attainment, we will need to integrate more-sophisticated outcomes assessments and consider competency-centered approaches as part of the broader higher education ecosystem.


We Must Think and Plan Beyond Institutional Borders.

Institutional diversity within U.S. higher education remains one of our greatest assets. But can we envision a high-performing system where our various components work together more effectively to provide today’s students with smoother pathways into and through postsecondary education? Adult students in particular are more likely to have attended multiple institutions, resulting in multiple, often-incompatible transcripts. Lack of credit mobility is a major impediment to attainment: The bureaucratic hoops students must jump through to validate their academic records for the next admission process can be an insurmountable barrier, particularly to those with little discretionary time.

To flatten these barriers, we have to adopt a whole-system approach. Given the strengths of our individual institutions, we should be able to create a dynamic system with multiple entry points, a variety of formats, adaptability for different forms of learning, and the ability to compound learning over time, making every academic achievement count along a transparent and smooth path to attainment of a credential, a certificate, or a degree. 


We Must Fully Utilize New Technology.

The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) over the last two years represents a potential sea change in the way we view postsecondary capacity— especially for post-traditional students.

Online courses and technology-enhanced instruction have been around for some time, of course, but MOOCs—particularly those offered through Coursera, Udacity, and edX—have captured our attention, fostered debate and discussion, and ignited our imaginations in new ways: Some of our best and most reputable institutions and faculty are already actively leading in this new arena, demonstrating that quality education can scale to dimensions never before possible. New and effective ideas about online pedagogy, adaptive systems, and rapid student feedback—along with the new ways of assessing student learning outcomes employed by MOOCs— will likely make their way into traditional classroom and online programs as well.

More institutions are also learning about the potential uses of open educational resources, and some are expanding their curricula or serving other audiences by licensing content from various MOOC platforms. ACE is also working to help bridge a key gap that’s preventing large numbers of posttraditional students from earning degree or certificate credit from free, widely available MOOCs.


We Need to Make the Best Use of Faculty Time.

As anyone who has taken a postsecondary course in the last few years can attest, the role of faculty is changing. The ratio of adjunct faculty to regular full-time faculty is increasing steadily across all sectors. Perhaps even more significantly, information and knowledge in general have become increasingly decentralized: They are “out there” on the Internet, highly accessible and largely free. This trend will continue to affect our institutions, whose traditional roles were often defined by the organization and delivery of information. By the same token, both of these factors are driving a more fundamental change in the traditional faculty role.

The net result is that faculty work is becoming disaggregated. Traditionally, a faculty member functioned in a vertically integrated system in which he or she would design a course, select its materials, determine student learning outcomes, design assessments, create content, deliver content, assess student work, and assign grades. Now there is a trend toward separating instructional design, assessment, and even some content delivery. This disaggregation is more obvious in online programs, but it is also making its way into traditional classroom-based programs, as can be seen in “flipped” or “inverted” classrooms.

The new primary role of the faculty may be to curate content and mentor students, freeing up faculty to do what they prefer and are best at, such as research and scholarship. 


We Must Prepare Students to Thrive in Both the Marketplace and in Life.

Social mobility and economic development are part of the DNA of our higher education system from individual, institutional, and policy perspectives. Postsecondary education—once seen as a strictly private good—has understandably come to be viewed through a more macroeconomic lens: Phrases like “credentials with labor market value” have now entered our vernacular. While employment is a principal reason for students to pursue postsecondary education, we should also balance that imperative for deep specialization and employment-related skills with the need for broad and general knowledge that can be applied over a lifetime.

Ironically, when employers complain about gaps in preparation and job readiness among college graduates, they usually point to weaknesses in communication skills, creative problem-solving, analytical ability, and teamwork, along with the need for a broader cultural, social, and global perspective—what most of us would recognize as classic liberal-arts skills. In our quest to move more individuals toward completion, we must avoid the risk of “over-vocationalizing,” which shortchanges our students by not ensuring that they have broad knowledge and skills that can be applied throughout their careers and lives. The goal is for postsecondary curricula to be both broad and deep.


We Have to Create a New Paradigm for Higher Education.

In Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, Donella Meadows discusses “leverage points,” or “places with a complex system (a corporation, economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where one small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” (p. 1). Feedback loops, parameters, rules, and goals are all potential leverage points. However, according to Meadows, the one place where the greatest leverage can be found is at the level of the paradigm or mindset undergirding the system: “[P]eople who have managed to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm have hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems” (p. 18).

Meeting our nation’s attainment goals depends on helping the vast numbers of underserved students meet their own postsecondary goals. To do that, we must realize that higher education needs a new paradigm, and work together to create it. First and foremost, we need to replace the outdated college-student archetype with one that reflects and embraces all post-traditional students. We need to listen to students, determine how best to serve them, and not relegate them to separate online programs or schools of continuing and professional studies. Post-traditional students are our students.

We also need to expand our attainment mindset beyond the confines of the bachelor’s degree, recognizing the necessity of multiple levels of credentialing, credit for prior learning, and competency- centered approaches.

While honoring and maintaining our institutional diversity, we must work together to build a cohesive system that provides many more seamless pathways for students to participate in postsecondary education.

We also have to embrace technology as a truly integral component of higher education that can enhance the teaching and learning experience.

How does one change a paradigm? And what can ACE do? Meadows offered this advice: “In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures of the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm into places of public visibility and power. . . . [Y]ou work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded” (p. 18).

ACE will use its unique position to convene the best and the brightest, to foster a conversation, and to establish workable solutions that might scale to the magnitude needed. As international comparisons show, we have a long way to go if we want the United States to again lead the world in postsecondary attainment. Statistics also show that, as a matter of demographic reality, the key to achieving that goal is to dramatically increase the proportion of adult and all other students who end up earning a meaningful degree, credential, or certificate.

The journey won’t be easy—the stakes are high and the road is long—but for the sake of our nation’s economy as a whole and our people as individuals, none of us can afford for the effort to fail.  


Cathy A. Sandeen is the vice president for Education Attainment and Innovation at ACE.



 Table of Contents