Access and Success with Less: Improving Productivity in Broad-Access Postsecondary Institutions


Achieving national goals for increased college completion in a time of scarce resources will require the postsecondary institutions that enroll the majority of undergraduates—community colleges and less-selective public universities—to graduate more students at a lower cost. Davis Jenkins and Olga Rodríguez examine research on how these “broad-access” institutions can do so without sacrificing access or quality.

Research indicates that the strategies broad-access institutions have relied on in the past to cut costs—using part-time instructors and increasing student-faculty ratios—may in fact reduce productivity and efficiency. The limited evidence available suggests that some of the most popular strategies for improving student success are not cost-effective. New strategies to cut costs and improve college success are therefore imperative.

Some believe that redesigning courses to make use of instructional technologies will lead to better outcomes at lower cost, although the evidence is mixed. Recently, a growing number of institutions are going beyond redesigning courses and instead changing the way they organize programs and supports along the student’s “pathway” through college. These efforts are promising, but their effects on cost per completion are not yet certain. Meager funding has so far hampered efforts by policy makers to fund colleges based on outcomes rather than how many students they enroll, but some states are beginning to increase the share of appropriations tied to outcomes.

Jenkins and Rodríquez argue that as policy makers push colleges to lower the cost per graduate, they must avoid providing incentives to lower academic standards. They encourage policy makers to capitalize on recent research on the economic value of postsecondary education to measure quality, and urge colleges and universities to redouble efforts to define learning outcomes and measure student mastery.