Home Online Education Access and Affordability Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment
Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

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.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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