Arkansas, Montana And Oklahoma Lead Initiative To Improve College Completion Rates

Higher education officials in Arkansas, Montana and Oklahoma are launching an initiative aimed at increasing college completion and equity for students in their states. The three states were selected as partners by Complete College America (CCA), the national non-profit dedicated to boosting postsecondary attainment in the United States.

The new effort, announced today, is made possible by a $1.75 million grant from Ascendium Education Group, which is supporting CCA’s Policy, Equity & Practice (PEP) initiative, a program begun in 2021 with the goal of improving college completion rates for students from historically underserved backgrounds.

Higher education agencies in each state will convene an overall cohort of 34 participating colleges and universities to implement and bring to scale strategies proven to eliminate disparities in higher education outcomes.

Their effort will derive from CCA’s emphasis on what it calls “Purpose First” strategies, which emphasize the linkage between student goals and academic planning, particularly at the beginning of college so that students gain early momentum toward college success and completion.

Key elements in the Purpose First strategy involve developing first-year experiences, introducing career exploration early in college, aligning early coursework with career goals, and promoting the specific engagement of adult learners.

“More than a decade after states moved to set audacious goals to increase postsecondary attainment, we are seeing that progress is possible. However, the pandemic has introduced a new set of barriers that could undermine that progress and reverse some of the same hard-fought gains,” said Dr. Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, in the announcement. “To sustain inclusive and competitive economies at the state level, we must ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to achieve their full educational potential—and develop the knowledge and skills to succeed in today’s workforce.”

Through PEP, each state will pursue policy reforms intended to increase college completion and square with their local circumstances and state higher education strategic plans:

  • The Arkansas Department of Higher Education will work to help colleges, universities, and the state meet their 2030 goals outlined in its Master Plan;
  • The Montana University System will expand its Montana 10 program, which offers academic, social, and financial supports designed to help students succeed in college, while scaling the statewide adoption of corequisite support;
  • The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education will work to strengthen the connection between higher education and the workforce, both for adult learners as well as high school students taking dual enrollment courses.

The problem the CCA initiative is addressing is significant. It’s estimated that nationally, about 90% of students from first-generation, low-income families do not graduate within six years, and 56% of first-generation college students have not attained a postsecondary credential after six years. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that six-year graduation rates for Black and Latino students stand at 51.5%, lower than graduation rates for White students.

Completing postsecondary education and training remain key elements for individuals to be competitive in today’s economy. That’s why it’s “critical that we increase the number and proportion of working-age adults with a postsecondary credential by 2025,” said Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education. “We are excited to join with other state leaders and institutions focused on ensuring that more students in our state graduate on time—and that students from every background can access the education and training they need to achieve their personal and professional goals.”

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