A number of reports and projects are beginning to converge on a definition of student success that, as it should, promises to help improve higher education's productivity. For example, a new initiative from the Gates Foundation, described by Inside Higher Education's Scott Jaschik in Gates Foundation to Spend Big on Community Colleges, aims at scalable student success. Providing a critical pathway into higher education and life-long learning, community colleges still maintain relatively low tuitions and open access in order to attract and enroll millions of students. Yet their credential completion rates leave much to be desired, as do those of most 4-year public universities, and the issue of completion rates drives the Gates Foundation's plans to work with the nation's ~1,200 community colleges.
Improving credential completion rates is an obvious productivity improvement, but is only one plank in a broader three-plank productivity agenda formulated over the past few years in this blog and, more importantly, by the Lumina Foundation's Making Opportunity Affordable statewide grant program. Supported by Lumina, eleven states are in the planning stages to improve statewide productivity in public tertiary education. To do so is to:
The first goal above is at the heart of what David Brooks called the "skills gap" in his NY Times column, The Biggest Issue. Interpreting research from Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology, and from James Heckman's paper, "Schools, Skills, and Synapses," Brooks observes that the U.S. started in the 1970s to lose a 35-year global education advantage (and its attendant economic productivity advantage), as education stagnation set in. During this continuing period of stagnation in the U.S., a number of other countries have significantly increased the proportions of their workforces with higher skills. Even though the U.S. has continued to increase its college-going rate over the decades, it has not improved upon the stagnating percentage of its workforce with higher, more competitive skill and knowledge levels. As a result, national economic productivity and competitiveness have been compromised by a "skills gap" between the U.S. and the several nations that have done better on goals 1 and 2 above. The income gap in the U.S. between the richer among us (those with a tertiary education credential) and the poorer (those without a tertiary education credential) accordingly continues to grow as the nation's economic fortunes show serious signs of deterioration -- to say the least.
To make matters worse, the strategies that too often come to mind for improving credential completion rates are too labor intensive to scale when simultaneously attempting to increase the proportion of the workforce holding a tertiary credential. Consider, for example, that the U.S. is well along the path to becoming a "minority majority" nation, which implies the need, not only to enroll an increasing percentage of first-generation, under-prepared, needy students, but also to help them attain a credential. We will therefore need new, less labor-intensive student success strategies, and that is why goal 3 is so central to the overall productivity challenge in tertiary education. The Gates Foundation will have to confront the challenge of helping under-prepared, needy students succeed at a reduced per-student cost of support -- in order not to compromise community colleges' commitment to affordable access. My 07/10/2008 post, Productivity in higher education - no longer an oxymoron, outlines a number of IT-enabled strategies for increasing the productivity of tertiary education and, therefore, of student success.