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.