College Completion Symposium Focuses on Evidence and Fosters a Rich Conversation

Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams

The Office of Postsecondary Education convened a symposium this week as part of its effort to drive a national conversation and focus on increasing college completion.  About 60 of the nation’s leading researchers, practitioners, and policy experts gathered at the U.S. Department of Education headquarters in Washington, DC for what was called “Evidence, Action, Innovation: College Completion Symposium.”

From the perspective of the organizers at OPE, the day was a tremendous success!  The conversation throughout the day was rich, drawing on the varied experience and expertise of those gathered.  Far from a traditional research conference where participants listen to descriptions of research or workshops that bring together individuals with similar work titles for common learning, this symposium intentionally brought together individuals from a diversity of backgrounds and roles in our postsecondary education community to engage with one another.  There were small-group working roundtables and large-group discussions, where participants were pushed to challenge one another and expand our understanding of the completion issue.  A main goal was to vet and integrate research findings with practical experience.

Completion A Key Department Priority

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke with the group, commending them for their work and challenging them to help the Department advance its completion agenda in line with President Obama’s 2020 goal to have the US again have the world best educated citizenry.  “Our task now is to brainstorm more creative ideas and scale up those practices that are most successful in making sure that all students—regardless of income, race or background—are crossing the finish line.”  Duncan noted the importance of gaining the perspective and wisdom of those in the field to help in the college completion agenda.  “All the good ideas are out there with you,” he said. “I urge you to be creative and thoughtful.”

John Williams (left), of Morehouse College, and Patrick Perry (right), of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, participate in the College Completion Symposium.

Evidence and Areas of Focus

While the completion agenda is broad and there can be many ways to advance student success, the day focused on two main areas where there is evidence of effectiveness: student transitions to college, including bridge programs, learning communities, and acceleration models; and ongoing student supports, such as advising, coaching, and mentoring.  The interactive nature of the day allowed participants to grapple with the challenges of implementing and scaling up these programs.  While many of these programs have been around for some time, conversations at the Symposium engaged practitioners and state policy experts about what works (and does not work) in practice, addressing barriers to implementation, ways to scale these practices, and areas that require further research.  The results of the symposium will help to inform a resource toolkit the Department is producing for institutions that are seeking to increase completion rates.  This document will complement the toolkit that the Department prepared for states in their efforts to increase completion.  In addition, Symposium provided a space for the participants to discuss innovative practices in these areas.

Request for Information

Secretary Duncan also announced the publication of a Federal Register Request for Information (RFI) seeking strategies to increase completion and postsecondary success.  While the Symposium focused on evidence-based strategies to increase completion, the RFI casts a wider net, seeking input from institutions, organizations, states, and systems that have promising practices to increase college completion.  Under Secretary Martha Kanter also spoke about the RFI, adding that she hopes it will facilitate a wider and richer national conversation after strategies from the RFI are published on the Department’s Completion website.

David Soo, Policy Analyst & Presidential Management Fellow, OPE