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The College Completion Agenda: Misguided or Right on Track?

November 10, 2016
Popular media headlines shout about skyrocketing college costs [1], crushing student loan debt [2] – currently at $1.3 trillion [3]– or how recent college graduates facing a weak labor market are forced to move back in with their parents and work in low-paying service and retail jobs [4]. These news items paint a bleak picture for current and future college students, and suggest that the value of a college degree simply isn’t what it used to be.

By Roman Ruiz

Despite this gloomy depiction, higher education remains one of the best investments an individual can make. The benefits of a college education are numerous and long lasting, and include rewards both for individuals and society. Compared to their peers without a college degree, individuals who complete college have exceedingly higher lifetime earnings, more job satisfaction, and are less likely to be unemployed. Society also benefits from increased educational attainment through increased tax revenue, improved public health, and higher levels of civic engagement [5].

Even though the benefits of a college degree are well known, the U.S. continues to under-produce college graduates. Census Bureau data reveal that only 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. holds at least a four-year college degree [6]. Once the world leader in the share of college-educated adults, the U.S. currently ranks 13th out of 34 OECD countries in the share of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold a degree beyond the high school level. The U.S. stands to fall even farther down the international rankings as other countries’ younger cohorts are completing postsecondary degrees at significantly higher rates than their older counterparts [7].

The underdevelopment of American educational talent could have potentially harmful economic impacts. By 2020, approximately two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education or advanced training beyond a high school credential [4]. By the same year, the America labor market is projected to experience a shortage of 5 million college-educated workers [8]

The college completion agenda is a national priority that requires political leadership at the highest levels. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) plays a critical role in advancing the nation’s college completion agenda, particularly for students from underserved populations including those from low-income families.

College completion has been central to the Obama Administration’s federal higher education policy agenda, more specifically “completing a quality degree at a reasonable cost” as articulated by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan [9]. Of particular focus is closing the persistent college attainment gaps for students of color, those with disabilities, English leaners, and students from low-income families – the underrepresented populations that have the most to gain from a college degree.

College completion is a complex and longitudinal process that begins at an early age. Through public policy, leadership and guidance, and strategic allocation of resources, ED has the opportunity to tackle the college completion problem through a variety of levers and at critical stages of the process.

The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to articulate college and career readiness benchmarks, assess students by these standards and provide interventions for those at risk of failing to meet them, and develop locally-tailored transition plans for high school graduates entering college or the workforce [10].

For students who make it past the high school completion hurdle, decreased college affordability presents a serious financial challenge that can detour college entry and ultimately degree completion. The Federal Government is a huge player in how the American higher education system is financed. In 2014-2015, the Federal Government spent $123 billion dollars on undergraduate student financial aid in the form of grants, loans, campus-based work-study, and tax breaks [11]. For many low-income students, federal grant programs – most of which are determined by financial need – provide access to a higher education they and their families otherwise could not afford. In 2014-2015, 8.3 million students benefited from federal Pell grants (need-based grants) for a total expense of $30.6 billion dollars [12].

In addition to fulfilling the critical role of providing direct financial aid to students, ED also advances the national college completion agenda through several other policy levers. For over 50 years, the federal government has funded college access and success programs (known at “TRIO” programs) that provide college entry and support services to low-income, first-generation, students with disabilities, adult students, and veterans. In 2014 there were approximately 2,800 TRIO programs across the nation serving 785,000 students at a cost of $825 million [13].

A host of other federal policies are designed to address barriers related to college entry, completion, and post-college outcomes. To assist students with accessing federal financial aid, recent updates have streamlined and simplified the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). To address the informational needs of students and families as they make college-related decisions, ED has made available more transparent information about higher education institutions’ graduation and employment outcomes (e.g., College Scorecard). The First in the World grant program incentivizes campuses that adopt innovative, evidence-based practices designed to increase college completion among students at risk of not completing. And additional federal student loan repayment options have alleviated monthly debt burden and prevented student loan default.

Pending Obama Administration policy proposals include incentive programs that reward students for on-time degree completion, competitive grants to encourage Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to adopt strategies that increase student success, and America’s College Promise (commonly referred to as “free community college”) [14].

Within the context of a globally competitive economy, college completion remains a critical challenge for the U.S. education system. This complex issue requires strategic and comprehensive policy interventions from all levels. The Federal Government plays an essential role in regulating, leading, and providing direct support to the U.S. higher education system. Expanding student aid programs, enhancing college-going information and resources, relaxing loan repayment options, and incentivizing institutions to create educational programs with an eye toward completion and the labor market are all strategies aimed at countering the narrative often told in the popular media. College completion remains a sure-footed path to America’s brighter educational and economic future. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated: “the most expensive degree is the one you don’t complete” [15].


  [1] Keenan. ‘What’s behind America’s soaring college costs?’, The Atlantic, 2014. [Online]. Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/what-s-behind-america-s-soaring-college-costs/360462/. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [2] Kantrowitz. ‘Why the student loan crisis is even worse than people think’, Time, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://time.com/money/4168510/why-student-loan-crisis-is-worse-than-people-think/. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016] 

  [3] Berman. ‘Watch America’s student-loan debt grow $2,726 every second’, MarketWatch, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/every-second-americans-get-buried-under-another-3055-in-student-loan-debt-2015-06-10. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [4] Davidson. ‘It’s official: The boomerang kids won’t leave’, New York Times, 2014. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/magazine/its-official-the-boomerang-kids-wont-leave.html. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [5] Baum, J. Ma, and K. Payea. ‘Education pays 2013: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society’, The College Board, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2013-full-report.pdf. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [6] L. Ryan and K. Bauman. ‘Educational attainment in the United States: 2015’, U.S. Census Bureau, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [7] ‘Population with tertiary education’, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://data.oecd.org/eduatt/population-with-tertiary-education.htm. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [8] P. Carnevale, N. Smith, and J. Strohl. ‘Recovery: Education and job growth through 2020’, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [9] S. Department of Education. ‘Toward a new focus on outcomes in higher education’, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/toward-new-focus-outcomes-higher-education. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [10] Gandal. ‘Getting serious about college and career readiness’, Education Week, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/04/20/getting-serious-about-college-and-career-readiness.html. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [11] The College Board. ‘Total undergraduate student aid by source and type over time’, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://trends.collegeboard.org/content/total-undergraduate-student-aid-source-and-type-over-time-0. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [12] S. Department of Education. ’2014-2015 federal Pell grant program end-of-year report’, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www2.ed.gov/finaid/prof/resources/data/pell-2014-15/pell-eoy-2014-15.html. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016] 

  [13] S. Department of Education ‘TRIO programs’, 2016. [Online]. Available http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/index.html. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

  [14] S. Department of Education. ‘The FY 2017 budget request for education aims to increase college access, affordability, and completion, Home Room, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://blog.ed.gov/2016/02/the-fy-2017-budget-request-for-education-aims-to-increase-college-access-affordability-and-completion-4/. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016] 

  [15] S. Department of Education. ‘Ensuring higher education for all’, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/ensuring-higher-education-all. [Accessed 2- Aug- 2016].

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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