Don’t Expect State Universities To Solve America’s Degree Completion Problems

Suddenly, it seems, governors and state university presidents are all talking about American adults who’ve taken some college courses but never finished a degree. Even legislators in Washington are buzzing about a huge need for “completion programs” to help such incomplete learners get the degrees they need. All parties seem to point instinctively to public universities as the best solution to the problem. But history doesn’t indicate that state schools will succeed.

The numbers certainly look compelling. According to the Lumina Foundation, a private philanthropy, there are 37 million adults between the age of 25 and 65 in the U.S. who have gone to college but never earned any kind of degree. Colorado governor Bill Ritter recently said his state has 600,000 such people, while the Arizona Board of Regents has announced that four out of five high school graduates in the state do not have a college degree six years after finishing high school. A common theme being sounded is that workers without degrees cause a big hit to American job productivity.

Many Investments
A broad mix of grants, new completion degree programs and credit transfer options (to give students who’ve taken some classes a way to apply those credits toward a full degree) are being proposed – mostly with the idea of bringing state university systems to the rescue. But while legislators and educators argue, accurately, that this is where students can get the most education at the lowest price, there’s an essential problem with the type of student who needs the help.

A back story here involves some past failures and, not surprisingly, money. For begin with, the large number of adults with unfinished degrees offers, perhaps, a subtle indictment of state colleges and universities. If they match the broader demographics in American higher education (see a very complete picture of the type of schools attended by U.S. undergrads here), the vast majority of them once took courses at a state university or public community college, but failed to complete a degree there. That irony that seems lost on those now posing state schools as a cure-all.

Hitting The For-Profits
The money part has much to do with a debate about for-profit colleges currently raging in Washington, DC. It started in early 2010, when Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman Tom Harkin (Dem, IA) began releasing all sorts of damning statistics about for-profit schools, and it has set the University of Phoenix and others scrambling to burnish their reputations and fight off potential new regulation. Accusations of high dropout rates, over-aggressive recruitment policies and waste of government educational aid have many in Congress saying that government education money would be better spent in state schools. And the presidents of public universities agree. That would be the expedient thing to do in an environment where most education subsidies are being slashed due to massive state budget deficits.

The problem is that the for-profits’ loss (University of Phoenix announced that enrollment would be down 40% this year) may not be the state schools’ gain. It seems likely that for-profit schools will spend the next few years in a state of transition or perhaps retreat. But it’s also true that kind of services adult learners want – online degree programs with flexible schedules, top-end websites and tech-savvy teachers – are an area where they have far surpassed the average public university.

Global Crack Up
School politics are also a key issue. The glaring example of this is the effort launched in 2008 by the University of Illinois to join the online education fray with a “global campus.” The idea was to extend the school’s quality education and well-known brand name to a vast number of “non-traditional and placebound” students, each of whom would actually get a free computer with their reasonably-priced tuition. School officials cheerfully predicted the school would be serving 70,000 plus students online through the program by 2018.

Then a firestorm of controversy erupted inside the university. Administrators found themselves in a nasty struggle with faculty members who did not necessarily believe in online education, and who saw it – and the tech-savvy (read: younger) professors it requires – as a major threat to their system of tenure. Less than three years later, the program is dead, with the University of Illinois having lost $7 million on it. In an article on insidehighered.com, the former CEO of the Illinois Global Campus, Chester Gardner, said recently “It’s over…I wish people would just leave it alone.”

Outside the for-profit world, relatively few schools have shown an appetite for jumping into adult education online. A handful of private schools, Wharton and Cornell particularly, have created state of the art online programs. But they are certificate and not full degree-granting programs.

Tough Realities
Two major charges leveled by Senator Harkin are that for-profit schools get a disproportionately large chunk of federal grant money, and that they have low completion rates (with perhaps under 50% of students who start actually getting through their degree programs). The debate about whether or not the for-profit schools deliver quality schooling seems likely to go on for some time. But however distasteful educators, legislators and perhaps even students may find the idea of making money on education, it’s possible that state schools may soon discover something the for-profit schools already know: that attracting adult learners and getting them to complete their degree programs takes a lot of work, requires some marketing expertise and costs a good deal of money.