Leaders in Higher Education Share Experiences Increasing College Completion Rates in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “What’s Next to Move the Needle on Completion?” Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, gave the keynote remarks and served as moderator. Panel members included: Deneece Huftalin, president, Salt Lake Community College; Julia Michaels, deputy executive director of the Center for Public University Transformation, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; and William Moses, managing director for The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program, The Kresge Foundation.

By Morgan Aguilar, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications


The world is changing. The job market is increasingly global and every day students are learning and working alongside people with very different backgrounds from their own, so it’s no surprise that the pathways students are taking to enter the job market are rapidly changing, too.

At the second day of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation, educators considered how they can continue to increase six-year graduation rates in a world of accelerated change.

“The really big questions don’t change,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Utah. “They’re about ensuring success of our students, preparing the population to be thoughtful citizens and allowing them to compete in the global world. But the answers to the questions do change. They change every generation as we evolve our social compact to meet new student needs.”

As jobs continue to be disrupted by automation and options for technical schools increase, Reed stressed the importance of looking at higher education as a piece of the lifelong learning puzzle. Students are not only heading to school for the four years to six years after high school. They are working for a few years first and returning later for retraining and certifications. They expect to be able to access content and services anywhere at any time and they want to understand the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom.

“Higher education has changed dramatically since its beginning,” said Reed. “The challenge is how do we continue to extend the appropriate access and meet students where they are while preserving what we know are the long-tested verities of higher education.”

Panelists for the conversation on moving the needle on completion included Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), Julia Michaels with the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) and William Moses with the Kresge Foundation. The welcome address was provided by Dave Woolstenhulme, the interim commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, who discussed its goal of ensuring every high school in Utah has a college access advisor.

“The advisors we currently have in the high schools are dealing with everything from making sure the kids are fed to their mental health and school safety,” said Woolstenhulme. “They don’t always have the time to really give some good career advice, to help students process FAFSFA applications, scholarships and to navigate the system. With these college access advisors, hopefully we’ll get those students on the right pathways from the beginning.”

At SLCC, Huftalin said they are focused on not only increasing student completion but also increasing participation and completion for students of color. She said people don’t always understand why these are two separate parts of SLCC’s strategic plan until they better understand the equity gap.

“People often have no idea what the gap looks like,” said Huftalin. “When you share that with them, they are just stunned and stunned into action, so I think it has been really important that we differentiated between those two.”

The APLU is working to dramatically increase completion by 2025. Michaels described its “powered by publics” initiative that aims to support completion, eliminate achievement gaps and drive toward equity.

“This is tremendously complicated work and local context matters so much,” said Michaels. “We are relying on the institutions to tell us what’s important to them and what would be valuable so it’s very much a university-driven effort.”

The panelists agreed that focusing on the populations that aren’t graduating is going to increase overall completion quicker while also closing the equity gap. Moses reminded attendees that it’s important to remember results are possible.

“When we started this work about a decade ago, I don’t think we realized you could start to move the needle,” said Moses. “It was all hypothetical. But we’re starting to see real change and now I’m convinced it is not only the right thing to do, but it’s something we can succeed at.”

Several students weighed in with their ideas on how educators can ensure more students earn degrees. In addition to affordability and teaching students how to manage their financial aid and scholarship money, students talked about the importance of personalized advising meetings, where advisors are able to better understand the diverse ways in which students are approaching and completing their college educations.

In her closing remarks, Martha Bradley, the associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah, emphasized that a student’s educational experience is only exceptional if they say it is. The U spent a year asking students what would enhance their time on campus and help them graduate quicker.

“If a student cannot find a person on campus to look them in the eyes and advise them about ways they could enhance their experience or solve a problem, they will feel like they don’t belong,” said Bradley. “If a teacher doesn’t respond to emails or give thoughtful assignments, they will be uninspired and unmotivated, and they will fail to thrive. If a student can’t pay their bills or find support for the issues they face and if they are so overwhelmed that they want to throw in the towel, they will.”

Bradley said it is on all who attended the conference to work together to make the educational system better.

“They have trusted us to help them have a wonderful life and it’s on us to deliver,” said Bradley. “Let’s all be all in.”