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Why the completion challenge matters to students

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Commentary
Larry Miller

​Two months ago, a record number of awards were handed to proud graduates of Snead State Community College (Alabama). The number of these hard-earned achievement milestones—both associate degrees and certificates—has actually doubled in the past four years. 

The 315 degrees and certificates awarded reflect a commitment by the college that is entirely consistent with the national College Completion Initiative—a bold plan to make dramatic improvements in America’s educational systems with the goal of increasing the number of college graduates. 

The College Completion Challenge: A Call to Action was signed in April 2010 by six major organizations representing community college presidents, trustees, students, and faculty and staff: Phi Theta Kappa, the American Association for Community Colleges, the Association of Community College Trustees, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, and the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

Snead State President Robert Exley and Alabama Community College System Chancellor Freida Hill signed the Call to Action in December 2010, making the college the first two-year institution in the state to commit to the Call to Action.

Earning a degree before transferring

The over-arching goal of the initiative is to ensure that at least 55 percent of Americans hold a postsecondary degree by 2025. It is an ambitious goal, and particularly difficult for many states, such as Alabama, that are already well below the national norms. According to data from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, Alabama ranks 40th among states in its graduation rate of associate degree-seeking students. Nearly 20 percent of Alabama’s adult population attains this level of college completion. The national average is about 28 percent.

As at many community colleges, Snead State sees many of its students leave before graduation. They usually transfer early to four-year schools without receiving the benefit of obtaining an associate degree. Often, students who left community college prematurely ultimately dropped out at their transfer destination, so they have left their initial college, completed some additional credits, but never earned a degree. Basically, all they have to show for their years in college is a transcript.

We want to change that. We want them to graduate from Snead State—that accomplishment will last a lifetime. Snead State headed in the right direction two years ago when its leaders embarked upon a conceptual framework entitled “Finish What You Start.” Among the strategies was to emphasize graduation as the goal for all students. 

Jason Watts, associate dean for academic planning and research at Snead State, notes that there is irrefutable data to show that those who complete the two-year degree prior to transferring often succeed at the university level at a higher level than students who transfer without first earning their credential.

“Part of it is a justified sense of accomplishment,” Watts said.

The value of an associate degree is in the power it gives the recipient. A community college education is not as costly, so students commit less financially while still receiving a high-quality college education.

Higher income as an incentive

Students with an associate degree can earn as much as $8,000 per year more than a high school graduate, according to studies. A college degree gives students an edge when they are job hunting; Those who transfer without earning that credential can find themselves at a disadvantage if their circumstances force them to enter the workforce prior to receiving any type of college degree. If they earn their associate degree prior to transferring, they are better prepared for what the future holds.

Two-year colleges should challenge their communities in the same spirit President Exley challenged other community college leaders at a recent conference to join the College Completion Initiative. Ask your community: Do you really value the associate degree? As a potential student, do you aspire to achieve this milestone? As an employer, do you actively seek employees who hold this credential? As family members, friends, or colleagues, do you encourage others to set their sights on earning an associate degree?

Will you join us in the College Completion Initiative by encouraging and supporting our students to “finish what they start?”

Miller is chief academic officer and chief student services officer at Snead State Community College (Alabama).

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