The Next Wave of Student Completion: A Q&A with Yolanda Watson Spiva, Ph.D., President, Complete College America

Insights & Outlooks: What challenges have prevented two and four-year institutions from missing the mark on improving student outcomes?

Yolanda Watson Spiva: Many challenges have prevented two- and four-year institutions from improving student outcomes. The first is a design flaw. Most institutions are not designed with a focus on students, particularly student outcomes. While many institutions have a laser-like focus on the tuition-revenue associated with the students and the other goods and services of the institution from which revenue can be derived, student outcomes are sometimes simply not the priority of the institution as it navigates the myriad demands on the system.

Another reason that institutions may miss the mark on improving student outcomes is because they may not collect the data or if they do, they choose not to utilize the data they have, particularly in disaggregated form, to determine where the gaps in student outcomes exist. Most of the issues related to student academic success in college are hiding in plain sight—within the data. Looking at D, F, W, I rates (drop, fail, withdraw, incomplete) rates, for example, can provide trend data about the courses students are not experiencing success in, when students tend to disconnect from or stop out of the course, and whether the faculty member’s curriculum or teaching style could need improvement. Additionally, these types of data can also tell the institution if a bias exist against certain types of students’ ability to succeed in certain courses.

Institutions that utilize early warning or early alert systems to notify advisors, faculty and others of students encountering issues with the curriculum or navigating the collegiate environment, tend to fare better with student outcomes, especially if they have proactive/intrusive advising and strategic interventions to ensure student success. Institutions collect troves of data, but knowing when and how to analyze these data and utilizing it for the purpose of impacting student outcomes is the key. The data should be utilized in service of improving teaching and learning, not to vilify students and make them believe that something is wrong with them and therefore they are not college-ready or able to be successful in college.

Insights & Outlooks: Complete College America has worked for over a decade to improve student outcomes – do you see less resistance from two and four-year institutions to ask for help to improve outcomes?

Yolanda Watson Spiva:I actually do see less resistance from two- and four-year institutions to admit their shortcomings and ask for help to improve outcomes for the institution. Institutions are under more pressure than ever to retain students and to successfully move them toward completion. Often times state performance-based funding policies can be the reason for the increased transparency and focus on completion. In other instances, it can be the competition for students. The postsecondary landscape is a pretty crowded one, and with bricks and mortar and online options at students’ disposal, the incentive to get more students enrolled and persisting toward completion becomes even more important.

Lastly, students as consumers are becoming more savvy with respect to their postsecondary options. Online ratings, scorecards, and other information about institutions are at students’ disposal—right on their smartphones. Students can easily find out graduation rates and the institutions that are successfully getting students into well-paying jobs. Institutions know that they have to not only respond to their online reputation but must also make every attempt to proactively shape the campus environment such that students not only feel welcome when they arrive, but that they can actually be successful while there. Not asking for help will only exacerbate an institution’s situation if they are losing students or not enrolling sufficient students to stay afloat. In some instances, being vulnerable and asking for help is simply a matter of survival.

Insights & Outlooks: Aside from funding, what have you seen as the greatest barriers to improving student outcomes?

Yolanda Watson Spiva: Beyond the college funding barriers, some of the other barriers to improving student outcomes are academic, financial/economic, social, emotional and legal. In the academic realm, some institutions make it difficult for students transferring in from another institution to transfer earned credits to their new academic transcript, thereby delaying their time to degree. Other institutions continue to place students into non-credit bearing remedial education courses—often a trap door for students in college. Students sometimes repeat remedial courses for no credit, multiple times and grow increasingly frustrated as they make no true progress toward graduation, until they capitulate to this “academic hazing” by stopping out or dropping out of college. When they leave the institution, they leave with no degree, a unpaid balance on their financial aid account ripe for the collection agency, or a student loan that they cannot repay—ripe for a student loan default.

Other students experience such financial and economic distress that they while attempting to progress in their college curriculum, they also battle food insecurity, homelessness or other types of housing instabilities. These students are more likely to be under emotional distress and are less likely to be able to focus on their studies. Economically-disadvantaged students are more likely to work at least 20 hours per week while they are attempting to complete their postsecondary degree. Some even work full time (30 or more hours per week). These students contend with the myriad travails of life while trying to focus on a rigorous academic curriculum, until at some point something has to give—they capitulate—and their college pursuits are the casualty.

Lastly, a student’s criminal background, no matter how long ago the infraction or poor decision occurred, could also serve as a barrier to their finding success in college. A student with a felony can enroll in college, but is unable to receive Title IV financial aid. Incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, should have the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, and higher education is one of the best and most remunerative paths to accomplish that rehabilitation. Federal and state policies that separate citizens into winners and losers based on their status as a felon is problematic and flies in the face of our country’s democratic values.

For all of the aforementioned barriers to student success and completion, when we look at racialized minorities, first-generation college students, immigrants, returning adult students, student who are parents, and low-income students, these barriers are exacerbated and their college completion prospects are significantly diminished.

Insights & Outlooks: Amid talks of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – what role should the federal government play in keeping institutions accountable for their student outcomes?

Yolanda Watson Spiva: Amidst talks of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal government should continue have a role as a policymaker and funding source for institutions of higher education and the students they serve. The federal government should continue to hold institutions accountable for their student outcomes through its administration of progressive financial aid programs that benefit students and don’t overly burden them with student loans for attempts at education versus completions. They should also continue their oversight of the accrediting bodies that monitor and hold accountable the institutional programs into which students enroll. The federal government should also continue to fund, and at a higher level: discretionary grant programs for campus capital projects, faculty and other institutional research, longitudinal data collection and analysis of student outcomes. The federal government should also continue to promote and hold institutions accountable for policies and laws related to civil rights, campus safety, and others that promote and support student success toward a completed degree.

Insights & Outlooks: In what ways do you think the student outcomes conversation will shift in the next five years?

Yolanda Watson Spiva: The student outcomes conversation will shift in the next five years to the place where organizations such as Complete College America have been for the past ten years—squarely focused on those students who are not completing college and the ways in which institutions must transform in order to create more intentional environments to ensure that the conditions, structures, and behaviors exist amongst administrators, faculty, advisors, student affairs personnel, etc., and that the requisite actions are being taken by the same, to effectuate college completions.

The conversation will further shift to an unapologetic focus on closing the college attainment gaps for racialized minorities, low-income students, and first-generation students and ensuring that these students not only complete college, but complete college on-time. Lastly, the conversation will shift to students becoming workforce ready while they are in college, not simply at the end. Institutions will have to demonstrate that their students are employable or are launching successful entrepreneurial endeavors based on the skills, tools, and experiences gained while pursuing their degrees. Public-facing data on these outcomes will be more pronounced and more easily accessible, providing students with more agency and the ability to more strategically vote with their feet as they pursue stackable credentials and degrees of value.