The Corner

Education

Public Officials’ Fixation on College Completion Is Misleading

Government officials love to discover problems that supposedly call for their expertise (and tax money) to solve. Among those alleged problems is the “college completion” crisis. If too low a percentage of enrolled students obtain a credential attesting that they completed some degree or program, then something must be done!

The assumption here is that if a student doesn’t “complete” then he has failed — or the system has failed him. But as Shannon Watkins shows in today’s Martin Center article, that assumption is very shaky, at least with regard to community college students. That’s because many of them are interested in just a few courses that fill their needs or interests. If they get the skills or knowledge they want from those courses, continuing on to get a completion credential is a waste of time and money.

Watkins writes, “In their analyses of why students don’t finish their studies, policymakers overlook an important subset of the community college population: students who want to take a few courses, but who don’t intend to earn a credential or transfer. These students, sometimes referred to as ‘skills builders’ or ‘upskillers,’ only take the few specific courses they need to gain new skills for employment or to advance in their careers. Skills builders commonly take courses that train students in specific work-related fields such as information technology or business management.”

She cites research by University of Michigan professor Peter Bahr to support that contention. His work shows that “upskillers” often succeed in raising their compensation levels by far more than the cost of the courses they took.

Watkins concludes, “Policymakers should discard their narrow — and superficial — view of community colleges’ mission. People attend community colleges for a wide number of reasons: to explore their interests, to figure out whether college is for them, to earn credits toward a four-year degree, to earn a workforce credential, or simply to gain new, specific skills. It’s time that these leaders recognize that only some of those goals fit into the current ‘must complete’ narrative.”

Yes, but that would be letting a crisis go to waste.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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