Raising the Bar Beyond Completion

When it comes to education and training, no question is more vital than how we define and measure success. For most of the 20th century, our ultimate goal was getting more Americans into college. The turn of the century brought about a shift in focus from college access to college completion. While college access and college completion were both appropriate and laudable goals that brought about meaningful progress for millions of Americans and their families, the time has come to raise the bar yet higher to a definition and measure of success beyond completion.

The question is and has always been: completion for what? Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale aptly distilled the drawback of a focus on completion in a 2013 interview:

I think completion is very rapidly becoming the higher education community’s Potemkin Village. I mean, it doesn’t have much meaning. Completion for what? … There’s a tendency for any industry to believe that whatever it produces has value, irrespective of its purpose, and that’s just not true. That is, if you make cars, you think cars are valuable. You don’t understand why you make 300 cars and they don’t sell; as far as you’re concerned, you made 300 more cars and that was your goal. The point is, if those cars have no use or value, then you don’t really have a standard. What you’re doing is you’re feathering your own nest. So I think completion is something of a false god, to be honest with you. It’s something that comes naturally to educators, that is, “What is it that you need to do when you go to school? You need to go to school until we say that you’re done.” We need to decide what this is for.

College completion is not an end in itself; it is the promise of progress and prosperity beyond completion that motivates students to enroll in education programs and our citizens to invest public funding in them.

The rationale for college completion as the ultimate measure of success typically relies on the substantial average return on investment associated with completing a bachelor’s degree in particular, but averages mask considerable variation underneath. Here’s one example: while the average American family has $69,000 in household income, 11 percent of Americans live in poverty; yet, few would argue that we should only focus on the outcomes of the average household. And, while the average college graduate is working in a good job, 1 in 3 college graduates is underemployed, and more and more evidence has demonstrated that majors, institutions, and programs can lead to radically different outcomes beyond completion. Relying on the average case leads to one-size-fits-all thinking and simply sets the bar too low for students, especially first-generation students and students of color.

The question, then, is how should we measure success beyond completion? What measures matter? In an education and training system as diverse, pluralistic, and dynamic as ours, there is no obvious answer. The past decade has yielded measures of success that are largely financial in nature: earnings, return on investment, debt, and so on. And rightfully so: It is reasonable, at minimum, for students and taxpayers alike to expect that there is a financial return to their education since one of their primary motivations for financing it was an expectation that education would lead to higher earning power (in the case of students) or greater economic growth (in the case of taxpayers).

But we are quickly becoming overly reliant on financial measures as a means of measuring real value. The value of education isn’t just the money, but the ability to find yourself and your calling in and outside of work-based contexts. In many, if not most cases, workers trade off jobs that command a higher salary for other benefits they care more about, such as work that aligns with their interests and talents or work that promotes the common good. In fact, in some cases, workers specifically pursue education to access jobs and careers that offer lower salaries but provide more meaning, flexibility, or reduced stress. If education were only about the money, we’d need to look no further than funneling students into medicine, law, finance, software development, and engineering.

By itself, financial value can only yield a superficial reflection of the true value and purpose of education: to help individuals fulfill their potential, achieve their goals, and live fully in their time. Standards of value must reflect the reality that it’s not just the money, but the higher and multifold purposes of education that bring meaning and fulfillment.

In the end, the specifics of how success beyond completion will vary across providers and programs, depending upon their mission, geography, and labor market context. Which measures of success gain traction will likely become clearer in the coming years. As new measures of success beyond completion come online, we should avoid the temptation to maximize earnings or ROI and instead build programs and systems that are designed to fulfill individuals’ purpose and potential based on their talents, interests, and values. Ultimately, that means integrating the individual student and learner perspectives on whether their education was valuable and helped them do what they set out to do with respect to their education, careers, and lives.

Andrew is a Director of Research at Strada Education Network. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Strada, its affiliates, or employees.

I’m a researcher and writer focused on helping individuals learn in order to make progress in their lives and live fully in their time.