Promises to Keep

April 29, 2013  | 4 min read

by Andrew K. Benton, President, Pepperdine University

Much has been written about challenges within American higher education. As one who has made a career of educating students, the criticism stings, especially when words are accurately aimed and hit their mark.

This is particularly the case in the area of undergraduate attainment. As a nation we boast a remarkable and complementary system of public and private colleges and universities, and the number of students attending these institutions has never been higher. Each of these schools encourages its students to finish what they start—to complete their program of study and to reach their goals.

Yet not nearly enough do. The true extent of the problem is hard to quantify, but data we do have is telling: for example, ACT, originally known as American College Testing, reveals that in 2012 only 62.9 percent of undergraduate students enrolled at private institutions and 48 percent enrolled at public institutions graduated in four years. We also know the far-reaching effects of incomplete degrees, ranging from economic and employment challenges to obstacles in health and general well-being. McKinsey & Company reports that the United States will need to produce about one million additional degrees annually by 2020 in order to fill the share of American jobs that require one. The consequences of low degree completion ripple through our economy, our society, and our families.

Faced with such critical issues, in 2011 President Obama called for dramatic improvement in graduation rates and student attainment. It is a challenge I took personally, both in my role as president of Pepperdine University and as a vice chair of National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.

The commission recently released an open letter to all college and university presidents in an effort to inspire all those who lead in higher education to accept the challenge of framing an effective, practical response to making college completion a national priority and, eventually, a national victory.

Most presidents can recite with confidence entering student statistics, SAT and ACT scores, high school grades and, for graduate students, rising MCAT, GMAT, and LSAT scores, and on and on, but few are as certain of how many of those who begin actually finish and over what period of time. In so doing, we are, sadly, not keeping our promises. The burden of completion must reside primarily with the student, but for those of us who have the privilege of leading a college or university, we must marshal our authority, skills, and experiences, and apply them for the benefit of our students, to enable, to ennoble, and to encourage our students to press toward completion of their dreams and aspirations. It is our responsibility, as well as our commitment.

On the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment I had the privilege of representing America’s private and independent colleges and universities, both large and small. For the most part these colleges and universities do a good job in admitting and graduating their students; still, improvement is not only possible, but necessary, and the same is true at Pepperdine.

At Seaver College we are losing about 19 percent of our students per entering cohort. The majority of students who do not graduate choose to leave Pepperdine because of financial obstacles or family issues. As is true with most institutions of higher education, we lose the largest percentage in the freshmen year. For the 2012 graduating class, 74.7 percent graduated within four years and the six-year rates are expected to be approximately 80 percent. Among our peer institutions nationwide, those same numbers came in at just 56.5 percent within four years and a projected 68.9 percent in six. Comparatively, our rates are good but, again, I think we can do better. (At Pepperdine and around the country, attainment for graduate students is generally high.)

I was asked by a member of the Pepperdine Board of Regents what it would cost to improve our scores at Seaver College by five percent. My response was that “the next five percent in improvement” will emerge from mentoring relationships between students and faculty, systems that support student needs, greater flexibility in course delivery, and so forth. I believe national leadership in student attainment is within our grasp at each of our schools. Certainly cost is an issue about which much is written, but cost is only a part of the challenge. There is also a significant cost reality when dreams remain unfulfilled, when programs begun are not completed, when systems and traditions and institutional intransigence get in the way of the finish line for students. The work of the Commission on Higher Education Attainment is elegant in its simplicity: focusing on creating environments conducive to student persistence; providing encouragement to simplify transfer of credit from school to school; identifying those at risk early in the academic undertaking; tailoring programs to meet articulated needs, including use of creative class schedules, greater awareness of student career goals, and careful monitoring of progress toward degree. None of this should cost very much at all and the impact could be significant. This is an idea whose time has come.

The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment was, at its core, a conversation among colleagues, a broad and inclusive dialogue among leading representatives of higher education for the sole, unencumbered purpose of finding ways of keeping our promises and strengthening America’s future in the process.

If presidents and chancellors will turn from other important agenda items, for just a moment, to focus on the profoundly important issue of student success and attainment, the impact could be truly remarkable. We will do our part, one student at a time, here at Pepperdine University.