“One thing really important in terms of helping students persist—it’s not just getting them to college, it’s getting them through,” Amundson said. She noted that many historically black colleges and universities do an excellent job of providing not only academic support to new students, but also social support to help students feel comfortable.

Open education

Massive open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, also tie into student competitiveness. Some wonder if courses that are more tailored to a student’s field, along with certifications and specific skill validations, might render a traditional university degree unnecessary.

Stroup said the emergence of MOOCs “could be a great thing for people across the country, how we use these, and how employers will use these.”

Student populations are becoming more nontraditional, and while college degrees and that “credentialing function” is not going away, a barrier to using MOOCs more widely is that there is not yet a way for an employer to certify that a person has actually learned something, Amundson said.

“One of the things we’re going to be seeing is a shift from measuring simply seat time to measuring [if a student] can demonstrate what they know and are able to do,” Amundson said. “But right now, the college degree serves a really critical credentialing function.”