What Does Completion Mean to Students?

Ann M. Pearson

In education circles, the word completion seems to be everywhere. But as Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” What does completion mean? One source of confusion and angst about this topic in higher ed is that it is entirely possible that completion means significantly different things to colleges than it does to state and federal legislators than it does to the public in general. And what about students? What does completion means for them personally?

With everyone from the Department of Education to the White House to your neighbors chiming in on what it means to complete college and how important it is, students may very well be awed by the daunting challenge of college completion. For some students though, getting beyond the parking lot of their local community college and into the building to begin the registration process may well be an oft-attempted triumph. It isn’t an official completion, but that should count for something. I have actually heard students call this first step terrifying. Students may have no idea where to start, what to ask, or how to move forward, but they are braving the unknown to enter this educational realm that promises to solve so many problems they face. What it means to complete a program and actually receive a degree may be so far away in time that they choose to focus solely on immediate, visible goals. Even more ambitious students who come to college with a workable plan may not fully understand the necessary steps toward this goal or the different paths that could ultimately result in achieving their goals. No wonder they’re scared.

Colleges are making deliberate strides toward meeting students where they are in this goal-setting process. All-college efforts work to explain the requisite steps and to help students easily find the right offices for registration, advising, and other crucial student services. Advisors and faculty assist students in determining career goals to plan for the appropriate educational paths the students should follow. Front-line faculty more and more watch for warning signs in their classes that students may be struggling—observations that may have gone unnoticed or at least unmentioned a generation ago, but that now trigger an array of early alert systems to assist students in staying on course to completion and success.

Traditionally, college completion means receiving an academic degree, but not all students follow this path. Many students today see completion as meeting their short-term goals, which may be in the form of a technical certificate, a license, or a certain number of employee-sponsored continuing education classes to be eligible for promotions or salary increases. For now or the foreseeable future, some students may not want to pursue an academic degree. So for these students, completion may mean taking one or two courses for skill development or exploration. This is completion for those students—even if it doesn’t contribute to an agenda that narrowly defines only degrees or certificates as successful completion. Neither will this funding-tied definition recognize the student who perseveres to the end of a particularly difficult course even knowing she cannot receive a passing score because she understands staying in and continuing to try will help her the next time she undertakes the challenge. This is intelligent, well-reasoned, and courageous completion as well.

We need to continue to help students toward completion—certainly. We just need to recognize that not all goals are the same and that we have an obligation to meet students where they are when they make the monumental decision to attend college. One size does not fit all. And how students define completion personally must be part of the conversation.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on November 14, 2016.