- Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action by Vincent Tinto
The two greatest challenges facing post-secondary education in the United States are making college more affordable and increasing the number of adults with high-quality degrees and certificates. In my darker moments, both seem intractable. But when someone with the length of perspective and depth of understanding as Vincent Tinto shares what he's learned over the past four decades, the prospect of gaining ground at least on the second of these challenges seems more likely.
In Completing College, Tinto offers a framework for organizing institutional policies and practices that the research on educational attainment and his experience with different types of colleges and universities suggest can positively influence student persistence and degree attainment. As with his own work the past couple of decades, Tinto is especially attentive to the actions that can improve the graduation rates of students from historically underrepresented groups.
The seven chapters in this compact volume are tightly constructed and lucidly crafted. The book opens with a well-researched, albeit familiar brief on why college matters to both individuals and the larger society followed by a succinct overview of the four institutional conditions Tinto asserts lead to completing a program of study. These are expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement. The next four chapters explicate each of these conditions and illustrate what they look like when implemented in diverse postsecondary settings. The section on [End Page 339] innovative developmental education approaches in chapter 3 (Support) is especially strong.
The last two chapters represent the book's major contribution to organizing for student success. Here, Tinto speaks plainly about who must do what if institutions are to make a difference in student performance. All the chapters but the first conclude with a short, pithy commentary, the substance of which can serve as organizing themes for faculty and staff development activities for promoting student success. Readers looking for additional information about many of the technical concepts and issues mentioned in the text may find it in the 14 pages of end notes that supplement the chapters or the substantive appendices.
Throughout the volume, Tinto correctly emphasizes that to realize the desired outcomes, promising programs and practices must be implemented well, the quality of their implementation and impact continually monitored and tweaked when necessary, those found wanting discarded to divert resources to other efforts, and those working well scaled up in order to help make a difference for large numbers of students. Of course, the real challenge is, as Tinto knows well, getting people to implement these activities in complementary, synergistic ways. Easier said than done.
Continuity of leadership over extended periods of time at various levels of the institution is essential, as Tinto notes in various places. And his emphasis on making the classroom the locus for this important work is on target. At the same time, there are real limits on how much more faculty and staff can do, given swollen class sizes and deeply rooted reward structures that mitigate against faculty spending the time required to challenge and support students in the important ways Tinto recommends. Asking students to do more—which is necessary to prepare students well for the demands of the 21st century (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007)—means that instructors also must do more by way of, among other things, designing relevant, pedagogically engaging assignments, assigning more reading and writing, and providing more feedback on student performances. Expending more time and effort, means the instructional and academic support costs will almost certainly increase.
One way out of this conundrum is for campus leaders to take some risks and focus on the return on investment of promising initiatives such as high-impact practices (Kuh, 2008) and such demonstrably effective academic support programs as supplemental instruction. That is, these efforts may be more costly compared with, for example, large lecture courses, but the additional income from tuition and fees from the greater number of students persisting may offset the extra expense of adding staff to implement these programs and...