May 13, 2022

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Higher education is not known for rapid change. For centuries, its stability has served students, families, and societies. There is no question that the core business of higher education — generating and disseminating knowledge through education and the application of research to fundamental human concerns — has changed lives.

It may be, though, that we’ve been too cautious about change, and too mired in maintaining the status quo for reasons we convince ourselves are in students’ interests. More than 15 years ago, I received a grant from Lumina Foundation to improve the transfer student experience at the University of Illinois, particularly to streamline articulation of credit and facilitate the pathway to the baccalaureate for greater numbers of students who start their postsecondary education at a community college. We worked on many of the same issues around persistence and completion during my time as a leader at the University of Utah, and much to my chagrin, we continue to receive many funding requests for initiatives focused on access and completion goals instead of beyond completion outcomes. Yes, there are examples of radical transformation, but, for most students, the barriers to access, transfer, and completion continue with limited systemic change. It is not surprising that frustration around higher education is significant, with large numbers of students giving up on their goal of a baccalaureate degree during the process.

The current context calls for innovation at an accelerated pace. Consider:

  • Fortune 500 CEOs and small business leaders alike report that talent is a top concern, namely a sufficient supply of individuals with essential skills who bring diversity of knowledge and experience.
  • Public opinion polls reveal increasing uncertainty about the value of higher education, particularly about whether education after high school can be counted on to lead to employment.
  • Working adults are leaving jobs at unprecedented rates, many times without other employment, with at least some of this “stepping away” attributed to lack of fulfillment.
  • After decades of increases, a lower percentage of high school students are enrolling in postsecondary education immediately after graduation.
  • Paradoxically, the most affordable sector of higher education — community colleges and regional four-year universities — has experienced the steepest enrollment decline.

There is urgency in this moment. Intransience may now present higher education’s greatest vulnerability. What are students, families, and employers seeking from higher education today? Ideas and answers may come from examining our successes and our failures. After decades built on the belief that increased access to higher education was instrumental to equity, we collectively recognized that real opportunity wasn’t created by opening doors alone. Access without completion didn’t deliver tangible benefits; in fact, individuals who started colleges but didn’t complete a degree — and accumulated debt — often fared worse than those who didn’t attend at all. Thus, the access era gave way to an increased focus on completion. We frequently cite data illustrating that associate’s and/or baccalaureate degree holders earn significantly more over their lifetimes than peers whose formal education concluded at high school. And while this is clearly true in the aggregate, there are diverging patterns that can no longer be overlooked. First job earnings, for example, differ for women, students of color, and by programs of study. In some cases, patterns of difference remain a decade after completion. Even as we celebrate the correlation of a baccalaureate degree with higher earnings and a range of positive socioeconomic outcomes, we also must recognize that, in fact, some individuals have faced significant barriers that higher education can exacerbate rather than ameliorate.

In order to fulfill our promise, regain trust, and meet the needs of individuals and industries, our attention and our efforts must extend beyond completion of degrees. It is time for the era of outcomes — particularly the socioeconomic outcomes higher education has long promised, including employment, earnings, and fulfillment of purpose.

There are signs that higher education is moving toward an emphasis on outcomes through and beyond enrollment, persistence, and completion of degrees. Consider, for example, the recent announcement of the collaboration of the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning and the American Council on Education to redesign the Carnegie classification to incorporate socioeconomic mobility of graduates in a revised classification system. For decades, institutions have sought “R1” status, focused sharply on research prowess, while our mission statements and recruitment materials have touted our influence on students’ lives. The ACE+Carnegie reclassification effort is an opportunity to better connect what we say we value and do with the measurable socioeconomic outcomes our graduates achieve.

Other early indicators of a new era focused on outcomes are visible in emerging state performance-funding proposals that include employment and earnings. As noteworthy as these emerging efforts are, little will be accomplished with rankings or tweaks to incentive models alone. The real work must come from the commitment of two-and four-year institutions to better fulfill our promise of tangible outcomes beyond completion for every student. How can higher education institutions constructively address the urgency of this time?

A fundamental step is to see outcomes beyond completion of degrees as part of our compact with students. Investments in data infrastructure also will be needed to enable the success of efforts like the ACE+Carnegie partnership, and to enable institutions to better understand socioeconomic outcomes and design and measure programmatic efforts to enhance outcomes. And finally, thoughtful, innovative, and scalable solutions that improve higher education’s capacity for enhancing students’ outcomes must be developed, evaluated, and disseminated.

With the aspiration of surfacing and supporting innovative solutions that can enhance outcomes, and close equity gaps in outcomes, Strada Education Network created the Beyond Completion Challenge. In partnership with the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity, a community of 36 energetic, visionary presidents and chancellors from two- and four-year institutions across the nation, the Beyond Completion Challenge is supporting bold changes in higher education all aimed at improving equitable outcomes through and beyond completion. This report shares the research and framing for the Beyond Completion Challenge and also highlights early learnings and examples from the phase one innovation grants.

There is, of course, some potential for higher education to resist the outcomes era, to retreat to the safety of our historic perspectives, that is, we prepare students for life with durable, evergreen skills rather than envisioning new approaches that may better fulfill our promise to students, families, and society. Certainly, higher order skills — communication, critical thinking, and problem solving with teams — are essential. And strengthening these evergreen abilities can be paired with more specific skills that taken together will help students land good first jobs.

Colleges and universities must play a leading role in this new thinking, creating and testing transformative approaches. Students are clear: they want higher education to allow them opportunities to explore their potential AND greater certainty of a good job after college. Industries need talent from diverse backgrounds prepared with the skills to contribute immediately AND the potential to advance into leadership roles. As higher education approaches this moment, we strive for a faster pace of innovation and a willingness to lead the dialogue on what we can do better to enable socioeconomic mobility for our students and our nation.