Transforming Yesterday’s Postsecondary System to Better Serve Today’s Students

A college degree is a proven pathway to a higher median-income level and improved social mobility for students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, and for greater equity for society as a whole. Yet many students who enroll in college do not finish; across the United States, there are 36 million adults–or approximately 10% of the country’s population as a whole–who have completed some college, but did not earn a degree. Many of these students are students of color, low-income, and adult learners who attended college part-time or attended multiple institutions over the course of their postsecondary career. Reasons for leaving without a degree, such as scheduling, financial, and family care-taking challenges, make clear that the postsecondary system that exists today was not designed with today’s students in mind—students who are increasingly working part- or full-time, caring for dependents, and balancing myriad responsibilities alongside their studies.

We have an economic and moral imperative to serve today’s students by providing a real, accessible, and visible path to completion. Doing so requires three critical steps: 1) investigating how racial and socioeconomic biases are embedded into our postsecondary education system–and how institutional policies and practices are contributing to current problems; 2) moving beyond short-term fixes to tackle system-level change; and 3) identifying and reaching students who have stopped out.

Given the changing demographic reality in higher education and the varied needs of today’s students, we need completion policies and programs that are designed to address equity gaps in attainment. To implement those policies and programs, colleges can equip their leaders and staff with the right tools to implement evidence-based strategies to help more students cross the completion finish line.

The means to promote equity are available if you know where to look: data. Institutions that engage with disaggregated data understand who their students are and how they fare. Data also identifies both barriers to completion, especially for students from underserved populations, and alternate pathways that may be designed to meet distinct needs.

Degrees When Due: A Creative Solution to Completion Challenges

Many institutions recognize the potential of postsecondary education to promote equity and want to do their part–but aren’t sure where to begin. To guide institutions through realizing this potential, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) developed Degrees When Due (DWD), an innovative solution to increase degree attainment among the “some college, no degree” population by analyzing data through an equity lens. DWD builds on the evidence-based and equity-focused degree reclamation lessons learned from Project Win-Win and Credit When It’s Due (CWID), two earlier models that collectively helped institutions award more than 20,000 new associate’s degrees to hard-working students.

DWD helps institutions and systems improve their student completion rates by sharing data-driven strategies and tactics through a free web-based platform. The nine-month learning experience helps institutions assemble the right teams to work with their own real-time student data in order to identify eligible students, run degree audits for different degree pathways, and confer degrees. In addition to supporting institutions as they successfully navigate the technical work of data mining and degree auditing, DWD helps institutions fundamentally rethink their campus completion culture, address equity gaps, and tackle institutional policies in order to support more adult learners make it across the degree finish line instead of stopping out.  

In short, DWD guides institutional teams through applying an equity lens to their data analysis to ensure that today’s students–students of color, low-income students, working students, first generation, and student parents, to name a few–are re-engaged to cross the finish line. To date, over 150 institutions in 20 states have committed to improving degree attainment by joining DWD and are implementing creative solutions to better serve today’s students.

At IHEP, we believe that all people should have the opportunity to reach their full potential by participating and succeeding in higher education. Today’s students include many who have been historically underserved by our system of higher education. These students have varied life circumstances and needs and the postsecondary community has the opportunity to do more to meet them. Through DWD, more institutions are providing students access to a quality, affordable education and thus a real, accessible, and visible pathway to social mobility for students and greater equity for our society.