Reaching The Obama Administration’s 2020 Goal
Strategies for Senior Student Affairs Officers
BY JOHN H. SCHUH
The Obama administration has established ambitious goals related to increasing the number of U.S. citizens who complete college degrees by 2020. The goals are a response, in part, to the increased competition that the United States has encountered from other countries that have made similar commitments to increase the number of college graduates. They are also a reaction
to the stark realization that the employment prospects of citizens in the future will be linked
inextricably to their educational achievements.
The vigorous level of competition from countries around
the world will only increase. It is clear, from an economic
perspective, that the future belongs to those countries that
are able to lead the world in the development of cutting-edge
information, communications, technology, and health care
strategies—all of which require a well-educated workforce.
The goals that have been established for higher education
challenge individual states to improve their college participation and graduation rates. A few states have set goals for
awarding an increasing number of bachelor’s degrees, but most
have not. In general, the federal proposal aims to increase the
percentage of college graduates from 39 percent (15.8 million)
of all Americans 25 to 34 years of age in 2009 to close to
60 percent (nearly 27 million) by 2020, representing an
increase of approximately 12 million. This is no small task for
higher education given the current economic climate. Most
state institutions have experienced reduced appropriations in
recent years, and private not-for-profit institutions are just
recovering from the deleterious effect of the declining stock
market on endowments.
The consequence: Institutions are being asked to do more
with less. This circumstance is hardly cause for optimism,
but it does provide an opportunity for institutional leaders to
conduct a comprehensive review of institutional operations,
including student affairs, and make judgments about activities, experiences, and programs that contribute to student
learning and retention. Setting aside auxiliary services that
do not rely on institutions’ general funds for financial support, decisions must be made about whether specific services,
programs, and experiences provided for students are mission
central. If such services and programs cannot be demonstrated
to advance the institution’s learning agenda and contribute to
student retention, it may be time to eliminate them from the
Strategies for SSAOs
To reach the goals established by the federal government,
institutions have three obvious choices: increase the number of
students who are admitted and enrolled in each year’s entering
class, including first-year students and transfers; improve the
retention of enrolled students; or do both. More than likely,
most institutions will need to develop a strategy that blends
enrolling more students with retaining a higher percentage of
current students to help raise degree attainment. Retaining
current students is a far more efficient approach to increasing
the number of college graduates than attracting new students.
In the final analysis, most institutions will need to do both.
Senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) may want to consider
the following strategies to increase student retention.
Develop A Conceptual Framework
Before identifying selected strategies SSAOs might employ
to help improve retention and graduation rates, it is important for the division of student affairs to adopt a theoretical
framework to guide its approach to improving retention. A
conceptual approach can be helpful in making decisions about
In thinking about improving retention and graduation rates,
Vincent Tinto’s theory of college departure, as presented in his
book Leaving College (1993), is a good resource. In operational
terms, this theory postulates that students must connect to
their university or college both academically and socially.
While academic connections primarily are the territory of for-credit experiences, social connections certainly are the purview
of student affairs. Senior student affairs staff should raise
the following questions about every program, initiative, and
student experience: How will this opportunity strengthen a
student’s connection to the college in a social sense? How will
this opportunity provide support for the student’s academic
connection to the college?
If these questions cannot be answered clearly and enthusiastically, then the opportunity may not be worth sustaining.
On the other hand, if the evidence suggests that the initiative
will strengthen the connection, the opportunity should be
pursued, developed, or even expanded.