For generations, top colleges and universities in the U.S. have been defined by their selectivity and cost. Colleges climb the U.S. News rankings by turning away more students and spending more money — even as our nation needs more graduates at lower cost.
Some colleges and universities have found ways to help students learn more and graduate more quickly. Often these ideas have little or no additional ongoing costs or that — by retaining tuition-paying students — generate offsetting revenue. The challenge is to put such lessons to work across the nation.
Take academic preparation, probably the single biggest hurdle to student success, especially at community colleges. Two-thirds of students who arrive at community colleges are assigned to a remedial class. In many places, students are sent to remediation in subjects — such as algebra — that are unnecessary for their intended studies. Only 20 percent of students referred to a developmental math class go on to pass a college-level math class, much less graduate.
Several programs have taken an evidence-based approach to fixing this problem. Carnegie Math Pathways, the California Acceleration Project, and Project ASAP have pioneered new approaches to developmental education. Their specific strategies differ, but these programs tailor classes to students’ needs and use data to get better over time. For instance, Math Pathways has helped more than twice as many students pass college-level math, do it faster, and — by increasing the number of students taking upper-division classes — produced a net revenue gain to the college.
Other innovations are made possible by new technology. Carnegie Mellon University developed an online statistics curriculum that, when supplemented by one hour of classroom instruction a week, allowed students to master the same material in one-quarter the time, according to a random-assignment study led by former Princeton president William Bowen. The study concluded that the technology could lead to lower costs for colleges over time without sacrificing learning.
Meanwhile, Georgia State University analyzed student transcripts to identify more than 800 mistakes that put students at risk of dropping out and reaches out to students before it’s too late. The school expects thousands of additional graduates and — because students are graduating more quickly — Georgia State students and taxpayers are actually saving money. Similarly, Arizona State University’s eAdvisor software helps students find their majors more quickly, increasing graduation rates while reducing advising and instructional costs.
Last month, House Republicans began the process of rewriting the Higher Education Act, which authorizes most of the federal investment in higher education ($200 billion). In a forthcoming paper published by Results for America, we make several recommendations for how Congress can spread these successes to more students and more colleges, even within constrained budgets.
Colleges need defined goals and better data to boost graduation rates, economic mobility, and civic engagement. Better information will also empower students to choose programs where they are more likely to graduate, find good jobs, go on to graduate school and become active in their communities. These student choices will in turn drive further improvement at colleges.
The federal government can help by altering a variety of outdated policies: collecting data on all students, not just financial aid recipients; publishing employment and wage outcomes by major as well as college; and seeding efforts by researchers to measure other goals of college such as student learning and civic engagement.
Modest investments of federal funds can identify and validate strategies for helping students learn more and graduate at higher rates, without increasing costs. The U.S. Department of Education should set aside one percent of its higher education budget for evaluation to ensure the other 99 percent gets results. It should also further incent the use of evaluation and evidence through federal grant programs, including the TRIO and GEAR UP programs that invest $1.3 billion annually in helping disadvantaged students.
Finally, federal resources make it sustainable for colleges to invest in students. Colleges currently receive most of their funding based on how many students are enrolled, not how many pass their classes or graduate. While administrators may, for example, want to improve on-time graduation rates, they must not only find ways to help students but also risk reducing enrollment and thereby creating budget holes.
States are already changing how they fund public universities and community colleges to recognize outcomes, but only federal funding reaches private and for-profit colleges. Plus, unlike state governments that must balance their budget every year, the federal government does not cut back on its support for colleges during recessions.
As Congress begins debate on the Higher Education Act, it should take a step toward funding colleges based upon outcomes. For example, when it allows students to use Pell scholarships at short-term training programs — as the House bill does — it should pay for those programs based on their success in helping students get well-paying jobs.
All these steps will help many more college graduates overcome large disparities in economic opportunity, promote faster economic growth, and enable Americans of all backgrounds to work together to solve public challenges. Colleges can become better engines of opportunity at more reasonable cost.
John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and served as the White House domestic policy director under President George W. Bush. James Kvaal served as the White House Domestic Policy Council deputy director under President Obama. Their upcoming report, Moneyball for Higher Education: Using Evidence and Data to Boost Outcomes for College Students, will be published on Jan. 17.