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National Commission on Higher Education Attainment

December 30, 1899


Convened in October 2011, The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment was created with participation from the American Council on Education (ACE), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (A۰P۰L۰U), and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and included members nominated by each association, representing two-year, four-year, public and private institutions. The full commission membership list can be viewed here.

The goal of the commission was to chart a course for greatly improving college retention and attainment and, in turn, restore the nation’s higher education preeminence. On January 23, 2013, the commission released An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority to call upon their colleagues to make retention and completion a critical campus priority to stem the unacceptable loss of human potential represented by the number of students who never make it to graduation. 

Background Papers
  • Incomplete Completers: Analysis of a Comprehensive Graduation Rate
    This report compares traditional federal graduation rates for several higher education sectors taken from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which are limited to first-time, full-time students who enter in the fall of a given year, to persistence and attainment rates from the Clearinghouse, which include students who transfer or attend college part-time.  (Bryan Cook)
  • The Manifesto for College Leaders
    This report says the needs of adult learners, a national innovation economy and an information-driven democracy can combine to produce a “new era of innovation in higher education.” Higher education leaders should transform the academy to better serve post-traditional learners. The paper says that while much attention is paid to the disruptive potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other technology-driven developments, those are simply tools that will abet the real force driving higher education change: the rise of the post-traditional learners. (Louis Soares)
  • Promoting Student Completion One Class at a Time
    Many colleges speak of the importance of increasing student retention and completion. Indeed, quite a few invest substantial resources in programs designed to achieve that end. Though some institutions have made progress, many have not. For most students, the classroom is the one, perhaps only, place on campus where they meet each other and the faculty and engage in formal learning activities. If they do not succeed in the classroom, often one class at a time, they do not succeed in college. Yet most efforts to improve retention and completion are located at the margins of students’ educational life. In Promoting Student Completion One Class at a Time, Tinto outlines the four conditions that stand out as supportive of student classroom success, namely expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement. (Vincent Tinto)
  • Faculty Engagement to Enhance Student Attainment
    This report addresses the key role of faculty in realizing the national goal of increased college completion. Rhoades identifies changes and challenges in higher education that impact broader faculty engagement, one of which is the relative absence of a faculty voice in policy discourse, deliberation, and formation. The paper reviews prevailing approaches for promoting fuller faculty engagement in student attainment and identifies new strategies for achieving broader faculty engagement in enhancing student attainment. (Gary Rhoades)
  • Degree Attainment for Adult Learners
    Increasing the number of credentialed workers will require broadened access to higher education for working adults through flexible, accelerated delivery models and new services tailored to adult learners that support their persistence to goal attainment. Postsecondary education leaders that have been most successful in meeting this need, have redefined institutional relationships with adult learners, focusing on  program delivery and support services to meet the needs of working adults with multiple and competing responsibilities.  To meet these challenges, institutions must create and sustain a learner-centered culture, build a strategic enrollment framework, and implement strategies and programs that support progress to degree. Reaching outside their institutions to establish productive collaborative efforts with partners that share common goals, the higher education community can break through traditional barriers to create new approaches to achieving and validating learning outcomes. (Patricia Brown)
  • The "Quality Agenda:" An Overview of Current Efforts to Examine Quality in Higher Education
    The U.S. has established ambitious goals for raising postsecondary attainment levels but those goals may be worrisome with respect to academic quality.  If colleges and universities lower their academic standards, they stand a better chance of graduating the requisite numbers, but if this route is taken, the effort fails because substandard credentials shortchange students and render the nation and its workforce less competitive in the international marketplace.  One response to this concern has been the emergence of a "Quality Agenda," which aims to ensure that academic quality is attended to, measured, and improved.  The Quality Agenda is diffuse, multi-faceted, and far less visible to policymakers and the public than the completion agenda.  It consists of more than a dozen different initiatives undertaken individually by a diverse array of actors that are loosely coupled and largely uncoordinated.  The purpose of this paper is to briefly review the major elements of the Quality Agenda to help ground a discussion about how to move forward.  (Peter Ewell)
Papers Distributed for Discussion by the Commission (not specifically written for the commission)
  • Supporting First-Generation College Students Through Classroom-Based Practices
    This report captures how the 30 MSIs leveraged support from the Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative to develop a multipronged approach premised on the notion that what takes place in the classroom is central to the college experience. Specifically, the report shares exactly how the institutions integrated faculty members as principal agents to create a more engaging learning environment—ultimately, promoting stronger performance academically and socially among first-generation students. In addition, the brief provides insights from the Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative participants on how to redesign instructional styles and course content, use data to develop and sustain programs, and secure community partnerships and support. (Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP))
  • Winning by degrees: The strategies of highly productive higher-education institutions
    Recent analysis shows that the U.S. needs to graduate roughly one million more people a year by 2020 to ensure that the country has the skilled workers it needs to maintain economic growth. In order to graduate up to one million more students per year without increasing public spending or compromising quality, U.S. higher-education institutions would need to improve their degree completion productivity by an average of 23 percent. This is a formidable challenge but research shows that it is feasible by boosting graduation rates and improving cost efficiency, as has been demonstrated by top quartile U.S. institutions that are already 17 to 38 percent more productive than their peer group average.  Through an in-depth study of detailed data on performance, costs and practices shared by eight highly productive schools, we identified five winning strategies, focusing on raising the rate at which students complete their degrees and improving cost efficiency. Together these strategies can result in over 60 percent higher degree productivity. (McKinsey & Company)

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