Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education

reviewed by Joseph Kitchen - October 11, 2013

coverTitle: Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education
Author(s): Mark Schneider & Andrew P. Kelly
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421406225, Pages: 344, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

The current economic climate paired with the release of reports outlining the United States’ position relative to other nations has drawn increased attention to educational attainment rates. As the nation situates itself in an increasingly crowded stage of global leaders, it has sought ways to retain a competitive edge in higher education as a means of fueling our collective economic engine. Moreover, many policymakers and educators are concerned with the growing economic disparity in the U.S. and acknowledge the role of education in addressing these concerns. This has in turn led to calls for increased accountability measures and policies that address the nation’s current completion rates. Indeed, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed that both increased college access and completion rates are key features of the nation’s higher education policy objectives (Roach, 2009).  The authors featured in Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education explore the many facets and implications of policies increasingly focused on completion rates. The product of the authors’ work is a volume replete with nuanced perspectives on the opportunities and challenges higher education faces in the U.S.  The work also presents a hardy examination of strategies that address those opportunities and challenges, both past and present, accompanied by implications for higher education policymakers at the institutional, state, and federal levels.

The editors organize the chapters into four sections aligned with four themes that emerged from the examination of the completion agenda. They include: (a) broadening the definition of post-secondary education, (b) sub-baccalaureate attainment, (c) interventions and institutional reform, and finally (d) state policy exemplars.  Each section consists of chapters addressing a particular theme from a unique perspective contributing to an overall multifaceted analysis. The first part outlines the challenges the nation faces in addressing attainment rates at the post-secondary level. This is followed by part two, which addresses the potential and pitfalls of sub-baccalaureate programs. Part three addresses a number of popular higher education policies (e.g., remediation, financial aid) geared toward increasing degree attainment and the degree of success those strategies produce. Finally, part four explores the policies and strategies of three states (Ohio, Texas, and Colorado) to highlight the successes and challenges of each states’ respective higher education reform efforts. The chapters contained within this volume were written by authors from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. There is a notable number of educational policy experts represented among the authors as well as a mix of scholars with backgrounds ranging from economics to sociology. The representation of professional educational policy experts is evident throughout the arguments presented in the book, likely owing to the nature of the volume’s purpose.

The book does an excellent job of covering a number of critical issues that bear on policies at the institutional, state, and federal levels. It begins with a section that outlines the challenges and opportunities that face the nation’s higher education institutions and policymakers as we move toward increasing post-secondary attainment, enhancing student outcomes, and improving completion rates. The chapters in this section present copious statistical analyses that probe educational attainment and post-secondary completion rates. The statistical analyses serve as a means to interrogate shifts in higher education policies and the issues that accompany these shifts. The chapters consider: (a) whether the post-secondary completion and attainment goals set by the Obama administration and other key players are realistic, (b) current rates of participation, attainment, and completion, particularly compared with other nations, and (c) the role of institutional policy contexts and student preparation The section offers the conclusion that education policymakers and scholars must make great strides to better understand the facts around the nation’s current completion and attainment rates and suggests that we must learn from the success of other countries. It also suggests that educators and policymakers must focus on securing a pipeline in higher education as a means to improve attainment and to rely on innovation as a means to meet more realistic completion goals. Furthermore, quality student-institution match and information technology use were considered and one author concludes that improving instructional quality, institutional quality control, and tracking student outcomes are all viable strategies that should be considered to improve college completion rates.

Part two of the book, The Performance and Potential of Sub-Baccalaureate Programs, first outlines the prominent role that community colleges will need to play to meet the goals set by the Obama administration and other key players. The chapter suggests that to achieve the completion goals laid out, it will be necessary to increase enrollment, to shift enrollments to other post-secondary sectors (e.g., certificate programs), and to engage in much more comprehensive restructuring of organizations and institutional structures. The section then quickly shifts into a much more in-depth discussion of the budding prospects of broadening our conception of what qualifies as a post-secondary education as a means to increasing educational attainment and completion rates. This includes Brian Bosworth’s chapter that examines the potential of sub-baccalaureate post-secondary credentials (e.g., certificates) and Diane Jones’ chapter that explores the possibilities that abound for apprenticeships as an alternative route to achieving the skills and credentials necessary to contribute meaningfully to society. Bosworth argues that an expansion of certificate programs at the community college level aligned with regional economic needs may be a critical strategy working toward increased post-secondary attainment. Jones suggests that apprenticeships—largely absent from the current U.S. post-secondary system, but popular in European systems—could be an important method to address many of the nation’s education attainment challenges. She makes the case for a dual track apprenticeship system that engages practitioners, educators, and companies as well, noting the benefits to students, the companies, and taxpayers.

The third section of the book seeks to illuminate the relationship between higher education policies and completion rates. Eric Bettinger probes the tenuous link between financial aid (e.g., grants, loans) and degree attainment drawing on extant scholarship in this area. As well, he discusses the implications for federal and state financial aid policymakers and potential avenues for the adoption of innovative financial aid strategies. This is followed by Bridget Terry Long’s examination of efforts geared toward remediation for underprepared students as a means to increase retention and college completion. She considers the cost-effectiveness of providing remedial education weighed against the potential benefits, concluding that the impact of remediation varies across student, institutional, and state characteristics. The section concludes with a chapter that surveys the role of credit transferability and alternative credit awards. The author critiques institutional practices regarding credit transfer both between and within various institutional types, ultimately finding that current research does not appear to suggest that credit portability hinders attainment rates. Also noted is the need for additional research to determine whether alternative ways of credit attainment for prior work—such as competency based programs—are effective strategies for increasing degree production.

The examination presented in the fourth and final section of the book, The Lessons from Three States, was particularly informative and addressed the issues facing institutions in the current economic and policy environment from the perspective of institutions and state higher education policymakers. Highlighting the strategies employed by three states—Ohio, Texas, and Colorado—the authors tender several potential policy directions that other states might consider drawing upon. Indeed, several of the chapter authors in this section speak to the scaling up of institutional strategies and replicating innovative measures at other institutions and potentially in other states. Specifically, the authors in this section address productivity, accountability, and outcomes for institutions.

Section four notes the necessary changes in institutional, state, and federal policy to achieve the changes outlined above to encourage enhanced productivity, accountability and outcomes. For instance, Elaine Delott Baker recommends a shift toward performance-based funding for institutions to reward effective programming and practices—a recommendation she developed as a result of experiences from three initiatives in the state of Colorado.  Moreover, several authors in this section praise states that have adopted robust accountability systems and strategic plans for higher education that involve a diversity of stakeholders. However, the book also cautions readers to heed the circumstances of a particular institution and the organizational structures currently in place at the state level. For instance, Geri Malandra’s chapter on higher education reform in Texas places a great deal of emphasis on the “culture of commitment to education” in that state and its role in fostering an environment open to higher education reform. Richard Petrick, in his chapter The Ohio Experience with Outcomes-Based Funding, cites the importance of engaging state lawmakers and legislators in policy development and strategic planning as a way to secure robust, long-term support.  However, the authors also note the influence of factors that the state exercises less direct control over such as the economic and financial climate and the availability of private funds to develop new educational initiatives. Taken together, the final section of the book suggest that there exists several state and institutional experiences that could be used effectively as case studies for other states and institutions with a degree of caution given the unique elements of their situation. As one of the authors notes, the process of innovation and reform to meet the goals of higher education is an ongoing process and in turn requires patience, a willingness to experiment, and ongoing assessment and evaluation of strategies.

The authors of Getting to Graduation respond to calls for increased completion rates by addressing the nation’s current situation from several viewpoints, adding increased depth to our understanding of the topic. While the chapters often focus very narrowly on the quantity of graduates produced and the number of Americans with post-secondary credentials, one is left to wonder about the quality of the graduates and credentials produced. The editing authors were unclear as to whether they intentionally narrowed the scope of the book to address the issues they have identified strictly from a quantitative perspective; however, the end product was a collection of analyses drawing largely on large national or state level data sets (and a few multi-institutional data sets) paired with rigorous policy analyses. The book would have benefited from greater attention to the qualitative components of the educational experience that may or may not result from a push for greater numbers of graduates and greater numbers of Americans who hold post-secondary credentials. It is critical that our post-secondary institutions provide quality services and learning experiences to students as they work toward earning post-secondary credentials in an effort to produce well-rounded citizens prepared to engage with a diverse, multicultural society that is increasingly global in nature. Indeed, several of the chapter authors appear to agree, noting their concern with a singular focus on quantity of degrees produced over quality.  

The book successfully makes the case for a shift in policy focused on the completion agenda in higher education. It argues convincingly that the goals set out by the Obama administration, the Lumina Foundation, and a number of other key players in higher education policy require additional attention to the challenges and opportunities before us on our journey toward achieving greater post-secondary completion rates. The arguments the book presents, however, should not preclude continued focus on increasing access to higher education especially for underserved populations. Indeed, recent Supreme Court cases have shed light on the work that remains to be done shaping and clarifying policies pertaining to access.  Instead, Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education artfully constructs a case for increased attention to graduation, completion, and attainment rates among policymakers at all levels while permitting key strategies geared toward improving access to continue as part of a more comprehensive policy and set of goals intended to secure a functional educational pipeline.


Roach, R. (2009). Duncan touts college access and completion as top higher education policy goals. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved from http://diverseeducation.com/article/12381/#

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 11, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17273, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:36:02 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Joseph Kitchen
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH A. KITCHEN is an advanced doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program at The Ohio State University, where he also serves as a graduate research associate (GRA) to Dr. Terrell Strayhorn in the Center for Inclusion, Diversity & Academic Success (IDEAS). His research interests lie at the intersection of diversity in higher education, students' responses to physical and social spaces on campus, and the psychological impact of college on students. Kitchen's dissertation explores the impact of campus living on sense of belonging among people of color, which has significant implications for campus policies across function areas like housing, residence life, and student activities. Author or co-author of several refereed journal articles, book chapters, and external grant applications, Joey also serves as the multimedia editor for Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men. He earned a masterís degree in community planning and a bachelorís degree in psychology with a minor in international studies from The Ohio State University.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue