Complete to Compete
National Governors Association Focuses
on College Completion
When West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III became chair of the National Governors Association last summer, he quickly announced his major focus as chair would be Complete to Compete, a national initiative to increase the
number of students in the United States who complete college degrees and certificates and improve the productivity
of the nation’s higher education institutions.
Complete to Compete aims to create a set of common
higher education completion and productivity measures
that governors and higher education leaders can utilize to
monitor state progress and compare performance to other
states and between institutions.
“The nation has fallen from first to twelfth in the world
in the number of students who complete degrees,” said
Manchin. “This slide continues at a time when the econ-
omy demands more educated workers, and Americans
increasingly look to higher education as the path to eco-
The initiative has also:
➤ Developed a series of best practices and a list of
policy actions that governors can take to achieve
increased college completion;
➤ Provided support to states to design policies and programs that increase college completion and improve
higher education productivity and serve as models for
other states across the country; and
➤ Held a learning institute for governors’ senior advisers
in education, workforce, and economic development
focusing on successful state strategies to graduate
more students and meet workforce demands.
➲For more information, visit www.subnet.nga.org/ci/1011/index.htm
will benefit. In short, every activity and function should be
approached with the framing question: How can we advance
student learning and growth with this activity? Upon completion of various activities and programs, a review should be
conducted to answer the question: Did this program work?
The ability to measure effectiveness will help clarify the extent
to which programs, services, and activities should be continued, modified, or eliminated.
The Role of Assessment
The preceding questions suggest that many programming
decisions should be made on the basis of empirical evidence
rather than hunch, guess, or intuition. A robust assessment
program needs to be in place to make judgments about the
extent to which programs achieve their goals. While one can
learn from the literature, program presentations at professional
conferences, or conversations with valued colleagues, a particularly powerful strategy to determine success lies in empirical
studies conducted on college and university campuses.
In Project DEEP, data were used by institutional leaders to
drive the decision-making process about programs. When a
decision was made to implement a program, data were collected to determine the extent to which the program would
be sustained, reduced in scope, or eliminated. This strategy
requires a systematic approach to program planning and development, and it also raises expectations from leadership that
all staff members adequately explain, in empirical terms, why
their programs are successful or unsuccessful.
In short, a culture of assessment was developed at Project
DEEP institutions. The staff and faculty at these institutions were never quite satisfied with their performance. Like
Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., they looked for ways to
improve the student experience, based on empirical evidence.
Macalester’s statistical profile is robust—students with excellent potential enroll in the college, and its persistence and
graduation rates are higher than most. But, a few years ago,
Macalester student affairs leaders were troubled with nagging
student behavior problems that detracted from the quality
of the student experience, especially in the residence halls.
Consequently, student affairs staff “unpacked” residential
life. Through a series of focus groups, staff learned that their
approach toward the residential experience needed to be recast.
Changes were implemented in campus programming to
align student affairs initiatives with major issues students face
throughout their college years, and the quality of the student
experience in campus residences subsequently improved. First-year initiatives focused on students’ transition to college; second-year initiatives dealt with choosing a major; third-year initiatives focused on study-abroad experiences; and fourth-year
initiatives dealt with preparing for life after college. In addition,
one-on-one interaction with resident assistants was encouraged.
Data showed a significant reduction in the number of student
conduct cases and an improvement in the retention of students
from their first year to their second year. The approach taken
at Macalester is a perfect example of how student affairs can
collect data to develop a nuanced understanding of the student
experience, use the data to initiate program change, and
employ new data to determine the success of the approach. The
commitment to improvement triggered Macalester’s initiatives,
and data indicated that staff members were on the right track
to providing enriched student experiences.
Goal 2020 Benefits All
Regardless of whether the administration’s goal of achieving a
significant increase in the number of college graduates by 2020
is achieved, any progress will yield great benefits since completing college is a life-changing experience for graduates and
has significant value for the greater society. The challenge to
student affairs is to develop and sustain strategies that contribute
to increasing graduation rates. LE
John H. Schuh is Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and
Policy Studies Emeritus at Iowa State University.