There are two ways to increase the percentage of Virginians earning a college degree. One is to expand enrollment, push more students through the system and hope for the best. The other is to make sure that a higher percentage of students entering the system actually complete their degree requirements. For all the flaws of Virginia’s system of higher education, shepherding students through to the completion of their degree is something that Virginia colleges do exceptionally well.
Todd Massa is the person who thinks about this (or, perhaps, I should say he blogs about it) the most. “As I point out endlessly,” he blogged recently, “every two years, enrollment projections consist of new students plus continuing students. If year-to-year retention increases, total enrollment can increase while the numbers of new students is held constant.”
Putting a focus on degree completion rather than enrollment has two immense benefits. First, the state gets more bang for the buck — more college grads per dollar expended. It’s cheaper to help a marginal student complete his or her degree, I would argue, than to add capacity for a new student. Second, it’s better for the students. Attending college, amassing student debt and failing to earn the educational credential is not a good way for a young person to launch a career.
As the state with the third highest six-year completion rate in the country, Virginia might not seem to have much room for improvement. But I would argue the contrary. Taking six years to earn a four-year degree is nothing to brag about. There’s still lots of slack in the system. We can and should do better — both for the benefit of students and the benefit of taxpayers who support a system of higher education that is building capacity to accommodate the enrollment of more students.
In the context of my previous blog post, “The Southern Migration of Educated Workers,” Virginia should aim to raise the percentage of home-educated workers with college workers within current fiscal constraints, not by spending more money. That’s not necessarily what Massa is saying, but it is the conclusion I draw from his analysis. In other words, it’s entirely possible to do more with less.
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