Does Completion Matter?

As I sat on the stage during Graduation last Wednesday night, peering into the bright lights at the UIC Pavilion, I asked myself if completion matters.
It mattered to the families who crowded into the auditorium to see their sons, daughters, grandkids, sisters, brothers, parents, and extended family and friends mark the completion of their studies. It mattered to the faculty and administrators who showed up to cheer on their students.
Most of all, it mattered to the students who had worked so hard to achieve this milestone, and then apply for the degree, show up, wait in the heat of the garage, march in, wait in another line, and then march across stage, shake hands, leave the stage, sometimes cheering, waving their diploma above their heads, arms often raised in triumph. 
In my one-on-ones, people have argued many sides of the debate. Yes, completion matters, and we can do a better job of helping students graduate. Yes, completion matters, but you cannot hold individuals accountable. Too many factors outside of an individual staff or faculty’s control determine whether a student graduates. No, what matters is that the student gets the skills they need and then moves on to success in a school that will accept all of their credits. No, what matters is that we serve students well and meet them where they are and let them chart their own unique path. Yes, it matters for some students, but not others. 
As I weighed the arguments, name after name after name was called. Students ascended the stairs, shook the hands, exited the stage. Completion mattered to these students.
There is a national context to the question of whether completion matters. I heard fellow educators at the Higher Learning Commission meeting this past spring argue passionately that completion matters. I heard leadership of the HLC say that not only does completion matter, but we (the assembled Presidents) better get on board, because accountability for completion is coming whether we like it or not. 
I respond better to incentives than to threats, but I respond best to intrinsic rewards. With all the noise about accountability, I come back to the question, Does Completion Matter to Students? Do we serve them well by supporting them through completion and graduation?
As I watched the faces, I was caught up in the pomp and circumstance and decided that yes, completion matters. 
What I want to do is to make sure that we as a college are doing everything we can to help students complete. A student should walk through our doors on that first day of registration and sense that everyone in this building is committed to and helping them complete.  For those students for whom completion means graduation, we need to support them better all along their path. We need to make registration work better. We need to ensure that our advisers have the tools and time to set and keep students on a meaningful path. We need to have clearer pathways that help students decide what degrees and courses of study to pursue. We need the academic supports to help students along the way. We need to ensure that our course offerings in credit programs articulate to four-year colleges. We need faculty empowered to understand the needs of students and bring additional resources to bear when needed to help students continue.

I acknowledge that we need to work through accountability, how to measure success, how to figure out if what we are doing is working. For me, I decided last Wednesday that I want to see more smiling faces from Harold Washington College ascend those stairs, shake the hands, and get their degree. I will hold myself, first and foremost, accountable for our success in helping students complete. I need the help of everyone here to figure out what we need to do to help more students complete. In the coming months, based on much of the feedback I received in my one-on-ones, I will start working with faculty, staff and administrators to figure out what we each can do to contribute to that goal. I welcome ongoing feedback. I am confident that if we implement many of the great ideas I have already heard, along with the new ones people come up with, we will help more students complete.

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