Moving from College Access to Success

In the second installment of the Economy League’s Talent in Greater Philadelphia series, Anne Marie Bonner looks at how Greater Philadelphia currently fares on key measures of educational attainment and efforts to keep the region’s most at-risk students on track to graduation.

Over the last several decades, a range of collaborative endeavors have driven progress around improving college access in Greater Philadelphia, in particular for those who stand to gain the most: low-income and first-generation students. While it’s crucial that we provide supports to help traditionally underserved populations access higher education, these students are also at the greatest risk of “stopping out” before completing a degree. Whether run by institutions of higher education or nonprofits, there is a clear need for effective programming aimed at keeping the most at-risk students on track to graduation.




In 2015, the percentage of Greater Philadelphia residents holding a postsecondary degree rose to 43 percent, representing 206,000 new degree-holders since 2011. While this upward trend is certainly promising, the region still ranks sixth out of the top ten largest metros, behind peers like Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago.


Seventy-six percent of students entering four-year institutions in the Philadelphia region complete a postsecondary degree within six years of starting college. Though this tracks above the national average, it still means that roughly 1 in 4 students who start a four-year degree do not finish. At two-year institutions, the completion rate is more troubling, with just over one third of students earning a credential six years after entering college – falling below the national average of 39 percent. And among part-time students – many of whom are also balancing full-time work and family obligations – the rate is under 15 percent.


Barriers to college completion are wide-ranging and complex. They include lack of adequate academic preparation, low socioeconomic status, lack of previous family college experience, and work and family commitments. The high and growing cost of earning a college degree is another significant obstacle to completion. Although Pennsylvania is above the national average in terms of providing financial aid to students, its postsecondary institutions have some of the highest tuition rates and fees in the U.S. When compared to neighboring states in the region, Pennsylvania is the most unaffordable even when financial aid is considered.




The World Class education & talent development agenda – developed in partnership with business executives, civic leaders, and issue experts from across Greater Philadelphia – outlines priority strategies for improving education outcomes in our region. With the goal of making Greater Philadelphia a national leader in postsecondary credential attainment, the agenda lays out several promising pathways for boosting college completion.


Scaling Up


Replicating best practices among regional institutions is critical to scaling successful persistence and completion efforts in Greater Philadelphia. Many institutions are using student information systems to identify at-risk enrollees, track student progress throughout the semester, and improve communication among students, faculty, advisors, and support staff. Temple University, for example, uses predictive models to determine which students are at the highest risk of dropping out and then provides those students with increased support.


In addition to academic services, students need help in making the social and cultural transition to college and having experiences associated with success. Community colleges are increasingly seeing value in engaging parents, particularly those of first-generation college students, who provide a crucial support system for enrollees. Schools like Camden County College and Rowan College at Burlington County are now offering separate parent orientation sessions along with their traditional student programs.


Supporting Comebackers


Helping more adults who have some college credits to complete their degrees is arguably the quickest and most effective way to increase the educational attainment of Greater Philadelphia’s residents. Efforts like Graduate! Philadelphia, a national-model program, help people who have stopped out return to school and navigate the complicated processes of how to finish a degree, how to pay for it, and how to balance school with other life responsibilities. Programs like Peirce Fit at Peirce College – which offers flexible scheduling options for adult learners – help students juggle family and work obligations while pursuing a degree.


The business community also plays a critical role in helping to boost regional educational attainment. Over the last three years, the Talent Greater Philly coalition has honored several local employers for their efforts to help employees return to college and earn a postsecondary degree via tuition reimbursements, flexible scheduling, and educational advisory and coaching services.  


Tackling Affordability


Identifying and promoting more affordable higher education options is key to closing the college completion gap. Recent reports on the cost of higher education in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have identified concrete recommendations for making college more affordable, including restoring public funding, decreasing the time to completion, increasing financial literacy and financial aid options, expanding transfer programs and articulation agreements, and increasing the number of community colleges, among many others.


As the above examples demonstrate, Greater Philadelphia is positioning itself to be a leader in closing the college completion gap, but more work remains. With potential headwinds at the national level for the completion agenda, more than ever boosting educational attainment in Greater Philadelphia will require the combined efforts of the region’s higher education, nonprofit, and business communities. 


Read the first installment in the series, Coming Together to Advance Educational Attainment >>


This series is made possible through the generous support of Talent Greater Philly and the Lumina Foundation.