College Completion: Just Add Structure

Volume V, #14

I met my wife the first day of college. According to our wedding announcement in the New York Times, she remembered “going to her first class… without doing her homework. She was not alone. ‘We were supposed to have started reading Homer's Iliad over the summer, but none of us had,’ she said. Then Mr. Craig walked in, carrying three translations of The Iliad. ‘He was enough of a geek to walk in with three translations,’ she said. ‘And I was enough of a geek to be impressed by it.’”

When really good things happen, we like to call it fate or destiny. The truth is I wasn’t sure which translation we were using, so I borrowed books from two friends – having read none of them. This small decision, combined with the right set of circumstances, continues to pay off every day.

On the flip side, when really bad things happen, it’s also often the result of small decisions and the wrong set of circumstances. I’ve written previously about my prior company, Wellspring, the leading organization of treatment programs for childhood obesity. All the kids at Wellspring faced bad circumstances for weight control (i.e., unforgiving biologies and a challenging environment for diet and activity), which meant they’d have to exhibit super-normal behaviors at home in order to maintain their weight loss. When students had setbacks at home, it was typically the result of small decisions e.g., I ate a brownie, now I’m way off my plan, so I might as well take a holiday from diet and activity for the day/week/month.

In dealing with such a complex mix of biology, environment and behavior, there’s no sure thing. But Wellspring gave students a fighting chance by training them on structures like self-monitoring journals and behavioral contracts that they could use to regulate their own behaviors. More structure meant less room for bad decisions, no matter how small.


If we could make just one really good thing happen in American higher education, it would be to move the needle on college completion. Nearly half of all students who undertake postsecondary programs in the U.S. do not achieve the desired credential. So our high rate of matriculation (approximately 70%) is undermined by our low level of completion (54%).

Completion is now a much more important and powerful lever than accessibility. A new Brookings study on the limited gains of the Kalamazoo Promise should serve as a warning of the risks of making “free” or “debt-free” college the top higher education policy priority, as some politicians are urging; although enrollment rates no longer differ materially by race or economic status, the same old racial and economic gaps rear their ugly heads again in the completion data. Moreover, a new study from the New America Foundation shows that students who actually complete four-year degrees are much less likely to default on their loans; dropouts represent 60% of all defaults.

Across institutions, the primary reason students drop out is “life gets in the way.” It could be a family issue, or an income issue or both. But one small decision to stay home from class, or not to complete an assignment can snowball into academic inaction that leaves the student behind and unable or unwilling to catch up.

I’m typically not a “blame the system” guy. But in this, the system is more culpable for these drops than the institution. The isomorphism that plagues American higher education is the main culprit here. When all institutions aim to emulate elite institutions by applying their patterns and practices, it does a real disservice to completion.

Elite colleges and universities – the institutions attended by most people interested in doing something really good for college completion – glorify choice. Students choose their courses, their schedules and their majors. The most “liberal” liberal arts colleges allow students near-complete choice, imposing few if any distributional requirements. At elite liberal arts institutions, restricting choice is viewed as illiberal.

Smash cut to the non-elite institution enrolling a population that is 70% Pell-eligible and 60% first-generation college. Many of these students struggled to make it through high school and score high on the “likelihood of life getting in the way” meter. Will these students benefit from the isomorphic imposition of the liberal arts ideal of choice? Or are they likely to be harmed by it?


Complete College America is a not-for-profit organization that is laser-focused on this question. Founded in 2009 by Stan Jones, the former Indiana Commissioner of Higher Education, much of what CCA evangelizes relates to increasing structure and reducing choice for students who are susceptible to “life getting in the way.”

CCA has identified a number of “game changers” for college completion, and several involve more structure:

1. Structured schedules: default scheduling option is that students attend full-time, five days a week, in morning or afternoon blocks. This level of predictability makes life easier for working students and students with children.

2. Limit choice to program: once students choose their program, their courses and schedules are set. The institution determines course sequence to eliminate errors and ensure required courses are available.

3. Default pathways: students remain on chosen path unless given approval to change by an advisor.

4. Intrusive advising: advising no longer optional; students are required to meet with advisors, particularly at key points during their program (i.e., “milestone” courses that must be completed to ensure students are on track).

The remarkable Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at the City University of New York demonstrates the power of structure. Founded in 2007, ASAP incorporates two of CCA’s game changers – structured schedules and intrusive advising – in addition to targeted financial support (e.g., tuition waivers, free textbooks and metrocards). An independent study by MDRC showed that ASAP nearly doubled completion (22% to 40%). ASAP enrolled over 4,000 students last year across six CUNY campuses and there are plans to expand to 13,000 students by 2017.

Although limiting choice may not sound like college to those who view higher education through the sun-dappled prism of elite colleges and universities, I’d take a college like ASAP any day over institutions where the slightest small decision + wrong circumstances = dropout. Life can and does “get in the way.” Colleges and universities should be smart about structure to give students a fighting chance.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

CNBC piece on how 36 states are now basing at least some funding on performance, and Fort Wayne Journal Gazette article on how Indiana, an early adopter of performance-based funding, is facing hard choices in continuing to fund underperforming community colleges. CNBC
[An] ongoing budget squeeze has helped revive the idea of using various criteria to steer higher-education funding to schools that measure up and restrict payments to those that don't. The plans in place—and those rolling out over the next few years—vary widely. Some, like Illinois, apply to a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of state funding. Others, like Tennessee, apply performance tests to virtually all higher education funding. Most set aside funding for basic operations and then tie additional funds or new appropriations to a laundry list of state-mandated goals, from boosting completion rates to bonuses for schools that award a bigger share of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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Fort Wayne Journal Gazette
Two-year degree programs have to graduate at least 28% of the students. For short-term, non-degree programs, the provider must graduate 60% of the students. Ivy Tech is not meeting those thresholds for some programs, but the Indiana Department of Workforce Development is hesitant to cut the university off. “There will have to be a point when we have to clamp down and say ‘I’m sorry, you aren’t meeting the standards,’” DWD Spokesman Joe Frank said. “But they are a major partner, have infrastructure around the state, so we really rely on them. We can’t just say ‘we’re done with you.’”… The Indiana Commission for Higher Education reports show that 5.2% of full-time Ivy Tech students complete an associate degree within two years, with 27.7% finishing within six years.
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Third Way report on student loan debt and college completion rates showing significantly diminishing returns to completion for student loan levels over $10,000 per year, but only at public colleges and universities, by Rachel Dwyer of Ohio State: Experiences at public universities are significantly differentiated from private colleges… [the] diminishing effect of student loan indebtedness is concentrated among students who attended only public universities during their time in college. Figure 4 shows that the inverted U-shape of the relationship between levels of student loans and the probability of graduating holds for public university students. At private colleges, in contrast, the line is straight and not very steep.
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edSurge op-ed on why billionaires aren’t investing in higher education innovation, and why they should, by University Ventures Managing Director Daniel Pianko: One hundred years ago, the Robber Barons were not content to simply donate their money to Harvard and Yale. They saw room to stimulate competition and innovation. As a result, old line universities like Harvard were forced to keep up with upstarts like MIT… [Today] our wealthiest donors are investing more than ever in old line educational institutions, rather than the creation of new universities. Stephen Schwarzman gave $150 million to build a new dormitory at Yale. In 2014, alone, $10 billion went to the 20 top fund college and university fundraisers, nearly a quarter of total giving. Why have America’s wealthiest shied away from investments that might compete with our education establishment? Read more