Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Will It Take? Priorities for Illinois’ Success

In 2009, after much statewide discussion, Illinois adopted the Public Agenda for College and Career Success to guide higher education work over the next decade.  It correctly focused on higher education as a means to an end, not an end unto itself.  We were to be about (a) raising education attainment (b) being affordable to all of Illinois (c) creating a 21st century workforce and (d) supporting economic development.  These goals will produce better lives for our people. The plan includes metrics to measure our progress on each of these goals.  In 2014, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) with the support of its partners used those metrics to measure our progress during the first five years of the Public Agenda.

The results are both encouraging and concerning (see The Illinois Public Agenda 5 Years Later, REPORT and SUMMARY).  Despite a great deal of political and fiscal turmoil, the good news was that Illinois was among the top ten states in increasing the overall education level of its adult population during the last five years.  Like the rest of the country the gains were modest. By 2012, 42.5 percent of our workforce had a two or four year college degree.  This leaves us a long way from our primary goal to have 60 percent of the adult workforce with a college credential by 2025.

More troubling were results showing that, despite the overall increases, gaps for people of color (primarily our African American and fast growing Latino populations) had widened.  We made minimal gains, far below the national average, in helping low income students gain a college degree.  To reach our 60% by 2025 goal we must dramatically increase college success for these groups.  Given their numbers and the growing share of our student and adult population they will assume, they are our future.  The IBHE has made “closing the gaps” a top priority.  The Board will be setting interim (2018) goals for improvement, regularly measuring progress, and developing strategies with our partners to make our higher education system a fairer system, providing opportunity to all Illinoisans.

Some of that work has already begun with efforts to “remodel” our campus programs using strategies that have been proven to reduce gaps at institutions across the country.  For example, we are working closely with three of our institutions to pilot a “Guided Pathways to Success” program which we will eventually expand across all of our colleges.

The mid-point report also showed a dramatic decline in the affordability of college (two and four year) for middle and lower income families in Illinois.  In fact, over the last five years Illinois higher education became less affordable faster than almost any other state.  This is particularly troubling given that just over a decade ago Illinois was a national model for affordable higher education.  The IBHE’s second priority is to “improve affordability.”  Again, we will be setting interim 2018 goals, using metrics to measure progress, and promoting strategies at the state and institutional level to increase investment in higher education, contain costs, and provide more economical alternatives for students to complete college.  First and foremost, Illinois must abandon the extremely short sighted strategy of continually reducing public investment in the public good of higher education.   At the turn of this century, the state was paying for 70 percent of the cost of a four year college degree at a public university.  Today the state provides only 40 percent of that cost.  It is not that higher education has become tremendously more expensive, it is that we have shifted the burden to students and their families to pay for it.

In addition to advocacy for greater investment, the IBHE will be working with institutions to increase productivity, contain costs, and use technology to provide lower cost, high quality degrees to more of our students.  One simple strategy is to ensure students graduate without excessive numbers of extra credits.  In other states analyses showing the numbers of credits students are accumulating, on average, to obtain what is supposed to be a 120 credit hour baccalaureate degree and a 60 hour associate degree have shown unacceptable numbers of excess credits.  (In one state the average number of credit hours for an associate degree at one institution was over 100.)  IBHE will soon release a report providing a credit analysis for Illinois students.  Ensuring students are put on a clear and efficient pathway to a timely degree, and providing effective advising to keep them on it, will make college more affordable.

In a third finding the report showed we were making little progress in helping adult learners return to college and earn a career relevant degree.  Dramatically improving the opportunity for the 57.5 percent of working adults in Illinois without a college degree to earn a career related degree is essential to our success as a state.  It is worth noting that 21 percent of these adults have been to college and accumulated credits (some of them many credits).  They just did not finish.  Illinois like so many states is just not producing enough children to meet our education attainment needs through the traditional pipeline.  While we need to improve the K-12 to college pathway, we must also reach out to the millions of under-educated Illinois adults who need to come back.  If we do not, in 10 years we will be looking at the same undereducated workforce just 10 years older.”  Increasing adult college completion” is a third priority for the Board around which we are setting 2018 goals, using metrics to measure progress on a regular basis, and mobilizing our partners (especially employers) to put our adults on a path to success in a 21st century economy.


Sometimes we receive pushback from people who wonder whether, given the unemployment rate and state of the economy, we need more people with post-high school credentials. The answer is yes.  Part of the reason for a stubborn unemployment rate is the lack of an adequately educated workforce.  At IBHE we have solid data showing tens of thousands of jobs in Illinois going begging because employers cannot find the people with the skills to fill those positions, most of which require education beyond high school.  Despite the anecdotes we sometimes hear, the data also make clear that college graduates are far less likely to be unemployed or underemployed in this economy.  The number of decent jobs available to high school graduates plummeted during the recession and continues to decline during the recovery. Illinois must achieve its 60 % X 2025 goal to succeed as a state.  To do that higher education must close gaps, become more affordable for middle and low income families, and expand pathways for adults to return to college.  How to do this is not rocket science. It just takes the will to make changes and commitment to the hard work necessary to any major “remodeling” effort. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How About Some Good News?

Illinois’ education community, including elementary, secondary, and postsecondary stakeholders, are taking the lead in implementing a new set of K-12 learning standards and assessments that will be a game changer in helping the State create the educated and productive workforce it needs.  Our efforts in the K-12 system to create that workforce are under the visionary leadership of State Superintendent of Education Chris Koch, who is implementing new Illinois Learning Standards and assessments based on the Common Core State Standards.  Koch and the Illinois State Board of Education are joined by Illinois’ three higher education agencies leaders, Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), Eric Zarnikow, executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), and me on behalf of the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), with our full support for the Illinois Learning Standards and the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.  We are looking forward to providing students, teachers, college admission officers, and employers with accurate information about whether students are on track for career and college throughout elementary and high school. You can read our Joint Statement of Support here.

Every student, parent, and educator in Illinois needs to know that the new PARCC assessments are a very different ball game.  They have been constructed by some of the smartest learning experts in the world, including representation from our own state.  They reflect global best practice, teaching and assessing our students in the way the high performing countries do:  those that are outperforming the U.S. educationally on almost every indicator.  They are outcomes-based assessments that tell us whether students can comprehend complex ideas, read real texts and make sense of them, and construct arguments based on good evidence. These are the outcomes all of our teachers will be working to achieve for their students.

There is more good news.  A national field test of these PARCC assessments was just done with hundreds of thousands of students, a significant number in Illinois.  They surveyed the students and test administrators and the results were extremely positive.  Students found the tests engaging, and the administration of the tests was very successful.

College leaders across the country and in Illinois are supporting this effort (see the statements at www.higheredforhigherstandards.org).  Why?  Higher education has a huge stake in increasing the number of prepared students coming to our campuses.  Too many high school graduates are coming to colleges woefully under-prepared.  For example, recent data from Illinois show that nearly half of entering students (and more than 60% of underrepresented students) are in remediation courses at Illinois’ community colleges, and only 14% of those will graduate with an associate’s degree.  Over 15% of freshman at Illinois public universities require remediation, and only 44% of those graduate.  Nationally, it has been estimated that colleges spend $7 billion annually on remedial education and students spend $3 billion to take those courses.  After all that expense, less than one out of five of these students earn a degree.   

Colleges are under pressure to accelerate students’ progress to degree at reduced costs.  Making college more affordable must be a priority, especially in Illinois.  Few states have become less affordable to middle and low income families faster over the last five years than Illinois.  Dramatically increasing the number of students coming to college prepared will result in faster degree completions without developmental education, and that means less expense for college students and their families.

Illinois colleges also are struggling to address college success gaps for low income and students of color.  By better aligning our K-12 system to rigorous college readiness standards, more of these students will go to college ready for credit bearing work and more of them will succeed in achieving the college credential that is crucial to their economic well-being and social mobility.  

Because of the importance of the new standards and assessments to higher education in Illinois, the IBHE is actively partnering with ISBE to inform Illinois’ higher education institutions on how best to support implementation.  We are convening workshops with key campus staff focused on increasing the understanding and use of the new assessments by higher education.  We are focusing our IBHE Board meeting at Northern Illinois University August 5, on the issue.  National experts, as well as state education and business leaders, will discuss the importance of Illinois Learning Standards and the PARCC assessments to higher education and the State.  In addition, we will be discussing the issue with college and university Presidents and faculty scholars, who work in the area of education assessment and teacher preparation.

If we implement this well, we will be able to better help students across their elementary and high school years to stay on the college readiness track.  Working together we can make sure the high school senior year is focused on accelerating or catching up rather than being, as some have suggested, “a state subsidized dating service.”  Students who are ahead of the curve can be moved into dual credit or advanced placement courses that give them college credit and a head start on a college degree.  Students who are behind can spend the year in rigorous courses co-designed by high school and college faculty to help them catch up, eliminating the need for remediation courses in college that require tuition expense but do not count toward any degree. All of this, as I have said, is game changing for our students and our system.

So here we are on the cusp of a once in a generation chance to make sure our students are prepared for college, and it’s all going very well.  But there are critics who do not seem to want to accept this good news. So what are these folks saying?

Some claim this is an inappropriate federal intrusion into our school system.  Well, that’s just false.  I can say that with confidence having been involved in a state that started this work around 2000, never expecting that more than 40 states would join.  The standards we are implementing are completely the result of state efforts over a decade to fix our K-12 to higher education curriculum alignment problems.  Once the states came together on the standards, we needed to create world class assessments.  This is an expensive proposition. At that point the federal government did what many, both Republican and Democrat elected officials included, have said they should do:  they invested in innovation bubbling up from state work.  Assessments take money and the federal government provided money to create those assessments.  The federal government did NOT have anything to do with the designs of those assessments.  That was done by assessment experts assembled from across the country.

Some see this as just another test added to a system with too much testing.  There may well be too much standardized testing in schools.  If so, let’s focus on this one set of standards and series of assessments that truly focus on what a 21st century high school graduate needs to know and be able to do.  For too long we have focused on a varied set of assessments, that differed from state to state and told us our children were college ready when they were not.

Others mistakenly believe this work will produce a “national curriculum.”  Not so.  Teachers and schools are free to innovate and develop the curriculum and teaching strategies they feel best move their students to these college ready outcomes.

Some say teachers do not support the change.  Change is hard, and there is no doubt that some frustrations are occurring.  But nationally there is strong support from school superintendents, teachers, and teachers’ unions for this change.  The Illinois Education Association strongly supports the Common Core State Standards foundation of the Illinois Learning Standards.  Good teachers are telling us these types of outcomes are what they want to teach to, and many already do in spite of misaligned prior assessments. Teachers need more of our support generally.  In this effort to innovate, they need higher education’s support, along with major employers and foundations, which are weighing in positively.  For example, the Illinois Business Roundtable has been engaged in Illinois’ efforts from the very beginning, and remains among the strongest proponents for the new Illinois Learning Standards and the PARCC assessments.

There is already evidence that when the results of these new assessments based on strong standards are released, few of us will be happy with the large number of students who do not meet these honest college and career preparedness benchmarks.  But, by being honest, we can work together to improve our students’ educations and ensure they are truly ready for college and careers when they leave high school.  Too many of our students now leave high school thinking they are prepared, only to find they lack the math, complex thinking, and problem solving skills they need to succeed at the next level.  The onus for all of us will be to increase academic rigor and improve partnerships, from pre-school through college, to keep our students on the path to success in a 21st century economy.

Let’s have those courageous conversations in Illinois.  Let’s focus on our students and their success in a global economy.  In Illinois the conversations that have brought us to this point have been inclusive, bringing parents, teachers, K-12 administrators, higher education faculty, employers, and legislators together, to get this right for our children.  This IS good news.  Now let us finish the job.  


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Reproducing Privilege or Providing Opportunity: Which Path Will Illinois Higher Education Choose?

Income inequality in the U.S. is a topic of much debate. The history making concentration of wealth in the “1%” (or for that matter the top .01%) is a growing threat to our economy and our democracy.  Illinois is among the states with the largest gaps between its top and bottom twenty percent in income (eight greatest in the nation).  Its top twenty percent have an income 8.3 times larger than the bottom twenty percent. Higher education should play an important role in mitigating this inequality and promoting social mobility. Unfortunately, current data suggests that nationally higher education institutions are doing more to reproduce this system of privilege than to improve economic opportunity for those undereducated middle and lower income individuals and their families who are struggling to stay afloat in this economy.

Why is higher education such an important part of this debate?  Because, despite a lot of media banter about whether college is still worth it, today, obtaining a high quality college credential is the best investment it has ever been in our history.  In fact, the wage premium for a college degree is the highest in our history.  Recent analysis of Labor Department 2013 data by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. shows that four-year college graduates make 98 percent more than those without the degree.  This is a staggering increase since the 1980s and a significant increase over the last decade.  The recent increases have occurred despite the fact that during the Great Recession we produced many more college graduates.

During that recession the U.S. lost 5.6 million decent jobs available to high school graduates and those job losses continue even during the recovery.  Meanwhile, there are two million more jobs available to four-year college graduates than there were even before the recession began.  In Illinois, 2013 projections suggest that 70 per cent of the new and replacement jobs between now and 2020 will require a quality college credential. And of course, we’ve all seen the data showing decreases in health care, unemployment, and public assistance expenditures accompanying a more educated population, as well as a more civically engaged citizenry.

Simply put:  the skills and abilities embodied in a college credential are more valuable than ever. We also know that a person in the lowest income quintile with a college degree has a 40 per cent greater chance of moving to a higher quintile level than one without. So, it would make all the sense in the world for higher education to focus like a laser beam on providing this ticket to a better life to those who need it most. That would be the students from middle and lower class families whose earnings have been in decline or stagnant and who are struggling to hold their ground economically.

Yet, the 2010 census tells a different story. Among 24 year olds (post traditional college age at least) nearly four out of five in the upper income quartile have a four year college degree while barely one in ten of those in the lowest income quartile do. Even in the next highest third quartile (the middle class) there is a precipitous drop off. Only slightly more than one third of that group has a college degree.

In Illinois, we can take some pride that over the last five years we have been among the top states in the nation in increasing the number of college educated people in our younger workforce despite the recession and continued financial disinvestment in public higher education. However, several red flashing warning signs should cause us great concern. College affordability in Illinois has plummeted. Illinois has become less affordable faster (especially for middle and lower income families) than almost any other state in the country. Our gaps for students of color have widened.   Not surprisingly, while we have made some progress in providing college opportunity for low income students we lag far behind the national average. (Remember that when a state lags behind the U.S. average it is lagging behind a country that itself is an education laggard among developed nations.)  Finally, we are not doing enough to allow our adult learners already in the workforce without college credentials to access and succeed in college. As I noted in a previous blog, given Illinois’ demographics, we have little chance of reaching our “60% of the Illinois workforce with a college credential by 2025” goal if we do not better serve this population. (Remember the projected percentage of need for college educated workers by 2020 in Illinois is now 70 percent.)  We should especially attend to the more than one in five Illinois adults with “some college and no degree.”  Their wages are little better than high school graduates and many are grappling with debt from unsuccessful college experiences.

I hope I have not depressed you to the point that you have quit reading because, in addition to our overall success over the last five years in increasing college attainment, there is GOOD NEWS. The IBHE is working with institutions in Illinois to implement a game changing campus transformation called “guided pathways to success (GPS)” that has been consistently shown around the nation to dramatically increase student completion and reduce gaps for low income and students of color.  The University of Illinois at Chicago, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and City Colleges of Chicago are deeply engaged in this transformation and other institutions are utilizing GPS strategies as well.  If we can scale this program up across our state we can reduce gaps and provide more affordable college degrees. The GPS programs also are important to adults who have no time to waste in educating themselves for 21st century jobs. For more on “game changers” and the guided pathways work in Illinois visit (http://www.ibhe.org/GPS/default.htm) and nationally visit (http://completecollege.org/).  This work is especially important for our low income students. Across the nation low income students entering college with basically the same standardized test scores as wealthier students are four times less likely to obtain a degree.  Illinois higher education institutions must break the mold and better serve all of our students if the state is to succeed.


Other good news stories abound across the state. Our challenge is that many of these initiatives remain at the individual campus or local  level: a thousand points of light that need to be combined through new policies and system-wide partnerships into a bright spotlight illuminating a smoother and faster  path to a college credential for millions of adult and K-12  Illinois students. The IBHE Board has directed me and the IBHE staff to focus our work on increasing affordability, reducing gaps for low income and students of color, and increasing adult college completion. We will be setting goals, creating partnerships and implementing strategies over the next five years. We want to be a catalyst for the collaborations necessary to create the pathways that will dramatically improve college success for those who most need it.  I will share much more on that work over the next year.  We will do all we can to support Illinois higher education’s role as a provider of opportunity. None of us, I know, want to be an accomplice in the continued reproduction of privilege. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Let’s Have an Adult Conversation in Illinois

They are one of the most underserved college student groups in our state.  Their members cut across every racial/ethnic group.  Their numbers are massive.  Their college completion is essential to the future of Illinois, its economy, and its civic infrastructure.  If we fail them, we fail.  Who are they?  They are the 57.5 percent of adults in Illinois’ current workforce with no two- or four-year college degree.  They are the dominant group in our current workforce and, given Illinois’ demographics, will define our workforce for the foreseeable future. 

Two-thirds of the new and replacement jobs in Illinois over the next decade will require a college credential.  Despite our young and fast growing Latino population, there are neither the numbers nor the time to meet this need or reach our 60 percent goal of Illinoisans with a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025 through only better educating our children (which of course we must do as well).  If you want to know what the Illinois’ workforce will look like in ten years, for the most part you can look around and imagine everyone in the workforce now ten years older and equally undereducated.  We can change that projection by setting aggressive goals and implementing proven strategies to increase adult college participation and completion.  For the last five years we have been going in the wrong direction, lagging behind the nation in addressing the needs of this group.  It is past time for an adult conversation in Illinois.  We must create programs that allow college to come to them in ways adapted to their complicated lives where work and family demands are being juggled.

Twenty-two percent of our adults actually have some college but no degree.  They are college stop outs: the product of a time when student success rates were less of a concern to higher education.  Tens of thousands have significant numbers of credits toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.  Many states and systems have identified this particular group for attention.  They are creating successful pathways to certificates and degrees adding thousands of better educated people to their workforce, their tax rolls, and their communities in relatively short order.  Some good work is going on in Illinois, but we need a system-wide effort.  If we could succeed with even 20 percent of this population it would be a game changer for Illinois.

An even larger number of Illinois adults (25 percent) have only a high school diploma.  At one point that was good enough for a decent job and a middle class life.  However, as the demands of this new economy have changed so has the opportunity for high school graduates.  Their ranks were devastated by the Great Recession.  We lost 5.6 million jobs available to them during the recession and since the recovery began the numbers have continued to worsen.  By comparison, there are now more than two million more jobs for four-year college graduates than before the recession began.  Employers, colleges, and policy leaders must collaborate to create pathways to a college credential that are accessible and affordable for these adult high school graduates.

Then there are the 10.5 percent of adults without even a high school diploma.  For them the future is extremely bleak.  While we have programs to help many of these adults obtain a high school equivalent credential, these programs must be expanded and redesigned.  The finish line has changed.  The metric of success must be college readiness followed by completion of a valuable college credential.
Embedded within these groups are the thousands of veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their military training, like the work experience of all adults, must be credited through prior learning assessments to accelerate their progress to a credential and reduce costs for both them and the state.  Much of what we will do to focus our policies and practices on adult needs will serve these veterans as well.  There is no group to which we have a stronger moral obligation to remodel our system to ensure they can successfully integrate into civilian life.

There is good news.  Good work in Illinois and around the nation is defining what effective practice looks like and producing promising results that can be scaled.  The Illinois General Assembly is considering a resolution (SJR 49) that will focus a statewide task force on many of the issues surrounding successful adult college completion.  More and more funders in philanthropy and at the federal level are focusing their resources on adult college completion.  In addition, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), using analyses it conducted on educational progress in Illinois over the last five years, is identifying a few key priorities for attention between now and 2018 to support our 60 X2025 goal.  Adult college completion will be included in those priorities.

So perhaps we are ready for an adult conversation in Illinois:  a conversation that identifies state, regional, and institutional policies and effective practices necessary to reach adult learners at scale.  The IBHE will be working to instigate that work:  setting 2018 interim goals, identifying key metrics to use in analyzing progress, and convening key partners to create strategies that smartly engage us in the mutually reinforcing activities that will create true impact.  Given the opportunity and the numbers, significant success in that area can in fact be a game changer for Illinois.