Nearly 500 public colleges that account for three-quarters of all four-year college students pledged Tuesday to produce a combined 3.8 million additional graduates by 2025, an ambitious target that would help bring the United States closer to its goal of regaining its lost global lead in college attainment.
The schools represented currently produce just over 1 million graduates per year and, at current rates, would produce about 14.6 million degrees by 2025. Reaching the new target of 18.4 million will require institutions to improve by about 3 percent annually beyond current trends, to about 1.6 million annually, said Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities President Peter McPherson.
"That's a big deal, particularly with this growing diversity in the high school graduating classes," said McPherson, whose organization is driving the effort along with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
The institutions are not committing to enrolling more students, though many probably will. But the focus will be on improving completion rates — long considered the weak link of American higher education. Though the United States is among the best in the world getting students into college, by some measures more than one-third of students fail to earn a degree, and it's fallen from first to 14th in the proportion of adults with a degree. As college completion rates have stagnated, the economic importance of higher education has increased, fueling inequality.
McPherson acknowledged the effort isn't a binding commitment, but said the organizations leading the effort would publish annual updates so the public can tell if targets are being met.
Public colleges "see this as an important, defining mission for us in the years ahead. We're not giving you the statement and hoping you don't call back," McPherson told reporters on a press call. "We're hoping you and the public hold us accountable and we will work together all these universities to get this done."
McPherson acknowledged it will fall to individual institutions, with help from the states that support them, to reach the collective target. But he expressed hope that setting a national goal would drive campus agendas and lead institutions to better share the lessons they've learned about the challenging work of keeping students on track toward a degree.
Several educators on the call Tuesday discussed efforts already bearing fruit. Mary Evans Sias, president of historically black Kentucky State University, described efforts there such as 24-7 tutoring services, reducing inefficiency in credit policies, and revamping financial aid to better ensure students don't drop out for lack of money. Eastern Connecticut State University president Elsa Nunez said her institution has revamped remedial coursework to embed it in other classes, rather than offering stand-alone classes that often prove a big obstacle to students.
"We know we can get the students in and graduate them on time," said Nunez said.