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College completion remains one of higher education's biggest challenges--and one that must be solved

Arne Duncan: College completion–not simply access–critical to nation’s future


College completion remains one of higher education's biggest challenges--and one that must be solved

Making higher education the norm for everyone in the nation—and ensuring that people have not just access to higher education, but also the support to complete that education—is paramount to the nation’s future success, said Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Duncan, who is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, sat down during an EDUCAUSE 2022 session and discussed some of the biggest challenges higher education is facing—and college access and completion dominated the conversation.

Questions came from Michael Berman, retired CIO, California State University, Office of the Registrar; Brian Baute, industry principal for education with RingCentral; and Jessie Minton, vice chancellor for technology and CIO of Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’ve seen tremendous innovation and adaptation over the past couple of years. How do we [create] the chance to not just go to college, but graduate, for folks across the country the norm?” Duncan said. “The truth is that less than half the nation has a college degree. If we’re going to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, the challenge for all of us is how we start to education exponentially more young people. It’s not about access, but completion.”

Education is traditionally slow to change, often trying to do more in the same manner. Instead of transformation, it’s incremental progress. So how can higher ed move the needle forward? Part of the answer is found in new learning modalities and extending learning opportunities to students who don’t have the luxury of moving to a school and living there while they earn a degree.

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“The pandemic was devastating for so many families—one of the things we learned was that everything doesn’t have to be brick and mortar,” Duncan said. “We need to continue in all our brick-and-mortar institutions and continue to provide a great education in those facilities. How do we stretch and meet people where they are, whether that’s online, whether that’s [late at night] after work, or on weekends. It’s not one versus the other—it’s never either-or for me, it’s always both-and. That’s the challenge; that’s the amazing opportunity.”

Paying attention to equity and working to close opportunity gaps are essential components of increased higher-ed program completion.

“The challenge, again, is that less than half the nation has a college degree. That’s the reality. It’s not about just education; it’s about creating upward mobility. Education at its best does exactly that—it closes the opportunity gaps. Unfortunately, all too often, education exacerbates that gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Duncan said. “I worry about our democracy fraying at the edges. I don’t say that lightly. The divide between the haves and the have-nots, based on educational opportunity, is having a devastating impact on our country.”

When it comes to the kind of degree or postsecondary completion students obtain, Duncan said options are the most important thing.

“I want to give people as many high-quality options as we can, and let them figure out for themselves, for their current family or work situation, what the best option is for them. There’s no right or wrong,” he said.

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Laura Ascione

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