Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

Last week, non-profit research firm ITHAKA S+R released an issue brief, discussing the policies and reforms necessary for states to increase access to higher education and degree attainment. The authors write that the U.S. has a projected shortage of five million workers with appropriate postsecondary education credentials by 2020, noting that most undergraduate students today are nontraditional. That is, they work full-time while in college, attend college part-time, earned their degree after the age of 25, are parents, or are military-affiliated. In addition, nearly 66% of students completing a bachelor’s degree attended more than one institution.

Despite this major shift in the profile of most college students, the public higher education framework has not shifted as quickly to support full-time students aged 18-24. The researchers grouped their recommendations for change in three categories: Simplifying Transfer, Reforming Remediation, and Alternative Credentials and Pathways. None of these are new ideas. Aggregating them in a single document should be helpful to stimulate discussions with policymakers.

Despite policies designed to simplify transfer of community college students to four-year institutions, the statistics are grim. Less than a third of community college students transfer to a four-year school within six years of their first enrollment, and only 13% of such students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. The researchers recommend the implementation of common course numbering, articulation agreements, transfer pathways, and reverse transfer to increase opportunities for community college students.

Providing support for students unprepared for college work is often considered remediation. Nearly 70% of students beginning at a community college take remedial courses, compared to 40% at public, four-year colleges. These courses do not count toward a degree, delaying student progress, and less than 50% of students required to take remedial courses complete degrees. The researchers recommend three ways to improve remediation: multiple measures for placement, co-requisite courses, and innovative pedagogy. Examples are provided of states that have implemented these changes and their success in reducing the number of students requiring remediation.

While alternative credentials are not new to higher education, increased online options and non-traditional providers have increased the ways in which students may earn college credit for work experience and prior learning. Six pathways discussed by the researchers include: centralized admissions, dual enrollment, degree reclamation, prior learning assessment, bachelor’s degrees at community colleges, and online education. I was surprised that 49 states have policies regarding dual enrollment. Among the interesting data presented, dual-enrollment students from Texas are almost twice as likely to earn a degree than those not dually enrolled, and 60% of dual-enrollment students first attending community college earned a degree five years after completing high school.

The researchers conclude by posing six questions that could guide future research to assist states in implementing some or all of these policy recommendations:

  • Addressing the environments where these policies are most effective;
  • Examining which policies are most cost-effective;
  • Researching which policies achieve greater success in reducing racial disparities in college attainment;
  • Evaluating which policies are most effective over the long term; and
  • Asking how policymakers can address the requirements for controlling quality as these policies are implemented.

Again, none of these policies are new and many states have adopted some or more than a few of them. However, only half of the recommendations have been adopted by 25 or more states and some of the difficult recommendations like common course numbering and degree reclamation have only been adopted by 17 states. I agree with the researchers that more of these policies need to be implemented in order for states to improve the college attainment levels of their citizens. Companies looking to relocate to another state may likely use this document as a benchmark to determine the progressiveness of a state in adopting policies to improve its citizens’ education levels.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence