Monday, September 12, 2016

Completion for what?

During the first half of this year the IBHE partnered with numerous state agencies, employers, and non-profits to lead the development of recommendations to better align college credential production and current and future workforce needs at the regional level. The legislatively created Higher Education Commission on the Future of the Workforce released its final report on August 15. Our deep thanks go to the Commissioners who so expeditiously reviewed data, practice, and policy issues and belied the stereotype that higher education efforts move slowly. The IBHE secured extramural funding to support the work of the Commission during the budget crisis and now, in partnership with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has competed successfully for additional private funds to implement its recommendations. This work will be part of a major national initiative launched by USA Funds focused on Completion with a Purpose®.

Across the nation higher education and policy leaders are increasingly focused on the outcomes for college graduates. Previously in this space I documented the growing value of a college credential in the U.S. and Illinois’ economy. A college credential is more valuable today than ever. Those without them have little chance for a middle class life. Years ago the primary focus of college opportunity advocacy groups was college access. It was believed that if college opportunity efforts managed to place students (especially underserved students) on a college campus the work was done. Then, once it became clear how many enrolled students never finished the focus rightly shifted to access and completion. Today the Holy Grail for higher education is equitable and high completion rates for all students. Now another dimension is being added to the access and completion agenda:  post college completion outcomes. More and more policy makers and students are asking the question, “Completion for what?” Colleges are being asked to track and improve career outcomes for students in ways that address regional and state workforce needs. The Illinois Commission’s work puts the state on the cutting edge of that work.

The Commission’s findings call for:  a coordinated plan to achieve Illinois’ goal of 60% of its adult population with a high quality postsecondary credential or degree by 2025; a publicly available statewide data system that will track and measure both employer demand and the supply of available workers  with postsecondary credentials and degrees, using a regional focus; and the establishment of regional cross-sector approaches to engage both higher education and business and industry stakeholders as partners in economic development.

At the September 27, 2016 IBHE Board meeting at St Xavier University in Chicago, the focus will be on those recommendations and effective strategies to implement them at the regional level. Four Illinois regions of Greater Egypt, Madison County, Northeastern Illinois, and Rockford have been selected as sites for the initial launch of the Commission work. Each of these regions’ cross-sector collaborations (i.e., education, business, political, and community based organizations) will (a) identify key areas of workforce need (e.g., health care, energy, advanced manufacturing, (b) assess current college credential production to meet those needs, and (c) create cross-sector partnerships to increase capacity where needed and redesign of program offerings to make them more accessible to more students (e.g., adults with some college but no degree). These regional efforts will integrate the good work that has already been done as part of the development of the federally mandated WIOA plan and the Illinois Community College Board’s Workforce Education Strategic planning process. The IBHE and the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) have signed data sharing agreements, a first in Illinois, to connect higher education and workforce data to provide a sustainable data base to inform all of this work.

These are difficult times in Illinois. However, thanks to the dedication of the multiple state agencies and non-profits that have supported the work of the Commission, in addition to the work of the Commission itself, Illinois is setting the stage to ensure a maximum ROI for the increases in college attainment achieved through our 60 x 2025 efforts.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reclaiming a Pragmatic American Vision

Sometimes reading can be therapeutic. We are all currently suffering through very negative public rhetoric these days about the state of our country. It can be depressing and demotivating. For those who want to rise above that negativity I recommend Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox:  How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.  When I read that book I also was reminded of another wonderful motivating book I read a bit ago by Steven Johnson, Future Perfect:  The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

First of all I learned, again, that the repeated claims that our country is in steep decline are not supported by the facts. As Easterbrook documents among a long list of positives:
·        Unemployment is below where it was in the “good ol’ days” 1990s and job growth is strong;
·        America’s economy (no. 1 in the world) is larger than China’s and Japan’s (nos. 2 & 3) combined; and
·        Pollution, crime, and most diseases have been declining for a long time while living standards, life expectancy, and education levels have been on the rise.

In short, in most areas that matter the United States and most of its states are “trending upward.” That is important for people to know because much psychological research tells us there are few more powerful human motivators than evidence of progress:  a belief that what we are doing is working. If we hope to keep improving we must stay the course on the good work that has been done, sometimes over decades. Easterbrook catalogues that work in many areas including aviation safety.

That reference to aviation safety was what took me back to Johnson’s Future Perfect. The book reminds us that U.S. history is replete with effective change movements made up of problem-focused optimists. Optimists who are unafraid to confront the brutal facts of the present but always believing there was a path to progress and a better life. As an old American Studies college major reading this, I remembered that about the only respectable school of philosophy this country has produced is-you guessed it-pragmatism. Thank you to George Herbert Mead, Robert Park, W.I. Thomas and others at the Chicago School.   

Early in Future Perfect Johnson bemoans the misconceptions that undercut our progressive spirit. Not so much the negativity and hopelessness pandered by those hoping to benefit from people’s discontent, but the belief in heroes and miracles. We fail to understand that civil rights progress was the result of thousands of people finding common cause over decades and did not spring full form when Martin Luther King had a dream. That income security for the elderly did not spring miraculously from the passage of Medicare by a heroic president.

Most recently Johnson notes our (and the media’s) framing of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” A heroic captain and crew apparently made a miracle happen when birds hit an airliner’s engine over the Hudson River in New York as they landed safely in the river with no casualties. The facts, according to Johnson (and several aviation experts I consulted) are different. Long before this event thousands of experts in the aeronautics industry came together over many years to make air travel safer. The brutal facts they confronted were very brutal indeed as they reviewed the causes of crash after crash on land and water. But they would not be deterred. They believed they could make things better. Out of their work came redesigns of engines, guidance systems and more. As a result we are in an unprecedented era of air safety.

So when those birds hit the plane engine over the Hudson the engine neither caught fire nor shattered. Even more important the guidance system did not go out, making it possible for the pilot to land the plane evenly on the water and avoid flipping end over end as the plane would have done if a wing had hit the water first.

This is to take nothing away from the captain and crew, or Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson for that matter. It is to worry that when we see things in terms of heroes and miracles we are more likely to, as a people, sit around and wait for a hero (or demagogue) and a miracle to make things better. That susceptibility is heightened when we feel hopeless, that nothing is working, and that the end is upon us.

So, it is time for a rediscovery of our pragmatic, can-do American spirit.  As a country, as states, as communities, as individuals we must find motivation in the many areas where we are trending upward. We must imbue ourselves with hope. We must seek out those people and initiatives that have produced the progress Easterbrook documents and that have pointed to the path to progress. We must band together, knowing the work will be long and hard, requiring collaboration across our differences and sacrifice to produce the collective impact that it will take to address the problems we currently face (and yes we have many challenges before us).

I know this is possible. I have seen, over the last few years, regions and communities In Illinois and across the country come together in just this way to make their places better. They put political party, ideology, deficit-thinking, and pessimism on the shelf. They identify goals (short and long term), honestly measure their progress, and share the responsibility of implementing strategies that work. That is the pragmatic American spirit reclaimed: trending upward, building on real successes, motivated, and confident that, rather than in a quagmire, we can find the path to solutions and a better, fairer, and more humane society.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Matter of Life and Death

To those not living in a data free zone the escalating talent demands of the post-recession economy and the growing economic benefit of a college credential certifying ability to meet those demands are as obvious as climate change and the growing wealth gap. For those who deny these realities you can stop reading now and prepare for your next flat earth meeting. For those who get it and are working to address the challenge of opening up college opportunity for those most in need, the growing stratification of the higher education system, declining college affordability, persistent success gaps for underrepresented groups, and inattention to adult learners already in the workforce in desperate need of what colleges have to offer is a challenge and some days a source of existential despair (see for example the recent Hechinger report on the rich-poor divide in higher education (

Still I am not always sure even the most devoted of us fully appreciate the life and death consequences of lost college opportunity for low and increasingly middle income students. Then something comes along like the recent Nobel Prize winning economic study of unexpected and stunning increases in U.S. mortality rates among whites followed up by an even broader follow-up analysis published recently in the New York Times (study). The Times provided a massive study of 60 million death certificates from 1990 to 2014 following up on the Nobel Prize winning research. The analysis showed a staggering increase in mortality rates for U.S. whites of all ages largely due to drugs and suicides. Noting that while the death rate rose over the last five years for every age group, the Time’s analysis showed that the death rate “rose faster by any measure for the less educated, by 23 percent for those without a high school education, compared to four percent for those with a college degree or more.”

While there is no doubt there are multiple contributors to this startling and horrible demographic trend, many researchers point to the role of poverty and the stresses it brings: poverty resulting in significant part from a lack of the education required to hold decent jobs. Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California quoted in the Times poignantly argues, “It’s not medical care, it’s life. There are people whose lives are so hard they break.”

The focus of these studies is on white mortality rates. Hispanics and African Americans are not experiencing the same increases. However, the rise in white mortality highlights a once yawning gap with, for example, for African Americans whose rate remains higher than whites though now less so. The impact of marginalization and lack of education opportunity is a long term issue for people of color who have long been minimally served by our colleges. We must continue to focus on the implications of a lack of college opportunity for these groups. And things are not getting better here either. In my home state of Illinois, a soon to be released report on college opportunity for underrepresented groups by my agency will show a large and disturbing drop in African American and Hispanic college enrollment across our two- and four-year public system. Each of these students, lost to college, faces a life also besieged by the stresses of poverty.

So, mortality rates largely due to suicides and addiction are growing six times faster for economically marginalized undereducated whites. Mortality rates for people of color still suffering from large college success gaps remain higher than white rates though thankfully declining due to medical advances.

Going forward two-thirds of all new and replacement jobs will require a college credential. Nationally all of the millions of newly created high and middle wage jobs since the recovery from the 2008 recession have gone to college graduates (high paying jobs, $53,000 in salary or above almost exclusively to those with a BA or higher).

Put all of this together and the conclusion seems obvious: current trends undercutting college opportunity for the less advantaged, have life and death implications for millions of Americans. Every educator responsible for putting people on a path to and through college, every policy maker who impacts college access and success, must understand the alternative path people will follow without college. That is a path to economic marginalization, poverty, stress, and a life so hard that many will break.   

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Inconvenient Facts: Creating a Thoughtful Citizenry

Much is made these days about colleges indoctrinating students into ideologies on the left and right: humanities programs spawning covens of leftists; business schools producing amoral advocates of unbridled capitalism creating the atrocities recently dramatized in the move “The Big Short.” In the midst of all this it might be useful to revisit what an education is ideally about and the role of faculty in providing that education.

Max Weber, in his essay Science as a Vocation ( strongly argues that “The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his [her] students to recognize 'inconvenient' facts - I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinion. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe that the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he [she] compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts."

The reason this is “no mere intellectual task” is because if done correctly and consistently it creates a habit of mind essential to any educated person. This habit rejects relativism and absolutism as lazy and anti-intellectual. Demagogues and prophets are approached with deep suspicion. It does not confuse the right to an opinion with the obligation to identify and attend more seriously to informed opinions. The educated person knows that it requires hard work (that goes beyond Twitter feeds) to understand the arguments and counterarguments that surround any position. S/he knows it is ultimately an educated person’s responsibility to take the most informed position possible at a given time and to argue that position with an open mind. This includes being willing, when challenged, to reconsider and revise even one’s most cherished assumptions undergirding that position. All of this is done out of a commitment to always seeking the better position: the one more likely to support a wiser and more humane approach to life.

The ability to think critically and communicate well to create the most constructive form of argument are essential skills to walking the educated path. At its heart though walking this path requires the moral commitment to authentic argument and a complete rejection of the idea that those with the power of the megaphone or the skill of the demagogue should be allowed to win the day simply because they can dominate and distort the dialogue.

For a moment imagine a society where the majority of educated people embraced this habit of mind. How long would the current state of political discourse be tolerated? How successful would it be? How much greater would be the consequences for the public figure when the non-partisan group Politifacts identifies multiple “pants on fire” lies in their speech? How much more thoughtful would our debates and policies be on environmental, health, and safety issues? Might we more likely find an effective antidote to growing income inequality? Would it matter as much how many ad hominem ads someone can afford?

We often toss out “greater civic engagement” as a throw away benefit of a more educated people: often defining it in terms of greater volunteerism, voting, and charitable giving. While such outcomes are to be admired, the engagement of truly educated people in constructive vibrant civic argument and their commitment to hold their public figures to the same high standards holds the greatest promise of transforming our public space and our private lives.  

Monday, November 9, 2015

Higher Education IS a PUBLIC GOOD

Any discussion about the role and mission of higher education for the state and nation, has to begin with restoration of public support for higher education as a public good.   Constitutionally, public education is a state responsibility. Historically we have not focused on higher education as part of that mandate. It has been treated as an optional add-on for “some people.” It is no longer an option. In the 1990s President Clinton argued that a two-year college degree was the new minimum. President Obama has called for “free” community college. (We can debate the free term elsewhere.) The noted economists Goldwin and Katz (2008) have shown that, in large part, the reason the 20th century was the “American Century” was due to policies that increased education attainment. Early in that century the United States, unlike many countries, made the decision to make high school free and mandatory. At the time many argued high school was not for everybody; a familiar refrain today as we debate college access. The U.S. then followed that policy decision with others (e.g., the GI Bill) that, according to Goldwin and Katz analysis, made education the primary driver of America’s success in the 20th century. 

As the U.S.’s primacy in education weakens in the 21st century, states and the U.S. must find the will to recommit to investing in higher education to again dramatically raise education attainment to preserve the country’s status as an influential player in a global economy.

It is, in fact, well past time states restored support for higher education to reverse the declines in college affordability for middle and low income students. Most states have not yet even returned to pre-recession levels of support (Mortenson, 2012). In Illinois, over the last five years the state became less affordable, faster, for low and middle income students than in almost any other state (Illinois Board of Higher Education, 2014). A recent comprehensive report analyzing the causes for increased college costs nationally found that almost 80 percent of recent tuition increases in public higher education can be attributed to declines in state support (Hiltonsmith, 2015). 

Most states have set audacious goals for raising college attainment for their citizens (e.g., 55%, 60%, 80%). Current college attainment levels are hovering around 40 percent as they have for years. These aggressive goals are necessary since two-thirds of all the new and replacement jobs going forward will require college credentials (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; 2014). However, few have bothered to cost out what it will take to achieve these goals, much less made commitments to fund those costs. Setting a goal, such as Illinois has, that 60% of its residents should have postsecondary education, with a credential or degree is a first step. 

Looking at the capacity of our higher education institutions and the regional access to educational opportunities that are necessary for jobs that are available is another important step.   Estimating how much financial assistance to students and financial support for educational services, staff, faculty and facilities is also an important step.   Illinois must make the commitment to implement these two next essential steps.

In Illinois we are working to define the investment that will be required over the next decade or more to reach the state goal of having 60% of its workforce with a quality college credential. That “cost model” must include increased state investment, improved institutional productivity, and an approach to student financial support that emphasizes degree completion and “shared responsibility” allowing for greater student contributions through smarter work study policies, earn and learn models, etc. (Davies, 2014).

Each state must cost out the strategies needed to obtain their goals and commit to partnerships with higher education and its stakeholders to fund those strategies. While the focus of this effort should be on public higher education, for most states the plan must include support for students attending both public and private colleges. 

The word partnership is a key to the success of this work. Success will require investment from outside the education sector. Employers (who are prime beneficiaries of this work), non-profit, and philanthropic partners among others must join in multi-sector collaborations with education if we are to achieve the level of impact required. If we narrowly focus on only higher education and higher education resources we will fail. Exciting new work is developing that brings multi-sector partnerships to the table to support collaboration across sectors for collective impact on education outcomes (Kania and Cramer, 2011) and sustainable partnerships with employers that bring their considerable resources to the table in efforts to expand college ROI for more students (FSG, 2015).

At its core, however, this demands a compact that requires higher education to embrace business and academic delivery models that maximize efficiency and effectiveness in return for a commitment by states to make greater investment. This “both/and” strategy (Applegate, 2015) is necessary. Higher education cannot “efficient” its way to meet these goals as much as some political leaders would hope it could. Nor is there enough new money anywhere to fund achieving these goals using a “business as usual” model for higher education as much as some in higher education would like to avoid change.

There are those with considerable financial expertise that are rightly gloomy about the prospects of any upturn in state economies that would allow for restoring any part of the public investment in higher education. However, without increased investment it is hard to imagine anything but growing gaps in college opportunity between the haves and have nots. That negative spiral will ensure a gloomy future. We must restore public confidence and support for higher education as a public good worthy of public investment.  This will require a compact characterized by transparency, mutual accountability and trust between public policy makers, higher education, and its stakeholders.  We are all in this together.  If higher education becomes once again an elitist enterprise our economy and our civic infrastructure will crumble.

Resources for a Deeper Dive
Applegate, J.L. (2015). The path to progress requires a “both/and” strategy. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J.  (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Georgetown University: Center on Education and the Workforce: Georgetown University. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A., Smith, N. & Strohl, J. (2014). Hard times: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Georgetown University: Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

Davies, L. (2014). State “shared responsibility “policies for improved outcomes: Lessons learned. HCM Strategists. Retrieved from

FSG (2015). Shared value initiative. Retrieved from

Goldin, C. & Katz, L. (2008). The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hiltonsmith, R. (2015). Pulling up the higher education ladder: Myth and reality in the crisis of college affordability. New York: Demos Foundation. Retrieved from

Illinois Board of Higher Education (2014). The public agenda 5 years later. Retrieved from

Kania, J. & Cramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter). Retrieved from

Mortenson, T. (2012a). State funding: A race to the bottom. American Council on Education, Budget and Appropriations (Winter). Retrieved from

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Remodel the Business Model for Higher Education

In this blog, like my last one, I focus on areas where higher education needs to be “remodeled” to meet the needs of the 21st century student. Previously I proposed changes in the academic delivery model more attuned to today’s students. In this blog I focus on changes needed in the business and financial aid models supporting students and higher education systems.

Increase higher education productivity  

Higher education is a massive business with healthcare, personnel, purchasing, construction, and other costs common to any business. Increasing higher education productivity is an important effort. There are many lessons to be learned from the changes implemented in the private sector over the last decade or more involving use of technology, shared purchasing strategies (for a higher education example see the work of the Midwest Higher Education Compact at, streamlined bureaucracies and decision making, effective customer engagement, and more. Of course higher education should be selective and not emulate the private sector strategies that have been shown to exacerbate income inequality, disconnect productivity from wages, balloon executive salaries, and threaten the middle class.

Higher education, in its own interest, also needs to be an active part of state and national discussions on issues like healthcare and pension reform which are absorbing state revenues at a rate that puts support for education completely at risk. We have the expertise, in our business and medical schools particularly, to help states smartly address these problems. The simple point is that higher education must include its business practices in a productivity discussion that focuses on innovation and cost containment for students and use its intellectual capacity to help our states avoid bankruptcy due to bad policy decisions in areas like pensions, healthcare, criminal justice, and human services.  Given its research and intellectual resources higher education should be leading these discussions.

Remodel student financial supports  

There is perhaps no more direct way to reduce costs for students and increase their return on investment than to implement smart 21st century strategies to provide financial supports aligned with the needs of 21st century students. Federal financial aid/loan policies are now a Frankenstein-like creation brought to life in the 1960s and 1970s riddled with largely ill thought-out additions. State financial aid policies are a similar patchwork. Many state aid programs have gone completely off the rails providing growing support to wealthier students under the auspices of a misguided conception of merit grounded in standardized test scores (see for example a study of Florida’s “Bright Futures,” program at ). For the most part however, we deliver financial aid to students much as we have for decades, aligned with the needs of a 20th century student population and with no incentives built in to encourage students to remain on track to graduate.

Loan rates, even for federally backed loans are high compared to current market rates. The structure of the loan system remains largely structured like our home mortgage loan system rather than modeling the income based repayment systems implemented with good effects by countries like Australia. We do too little to help students who do not have their own financial advisors to develop a financial plan for college that helps them choose the right college options, find all the available financial support, and secure loans that they can repay given their career choices.

There is some good news that is pointing to the remodeling work that needs to be done to ensure students’ costs do not swamp their benefits from college. The federal government is making an effort to enroll more students in versions of an income based repayment loan program. Research is offering models for ways to deliver aid in ways that incentivize completion (see one model at ).  New models are being developed that integrate traditional financial aid programs within a “shared responsibility” model that expands sources of support for students. One-stop programs are being developed that help low-wealth students access all of the benefits they are due across a myriad of complicated federal and state programs (see the initiative at Miami Dade College at ).  Without this help one could argue it requires a college degree in our current system to determine how to pay for college.

Of course we all know that the bulk of tuition increases in public higher education are directly attributable to reductions in state support ( However, this is not an excuse for higher education to forego work with our business, philanthropic, and non-profit partners to remodel our system to do all we can to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. On the contrary, that work is more essential now than ever to serve our students and build support for public investment in the future.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

It’s Time to Remodel Higher Education: Creating a Home for 21st Century Students

As I write this Illinois is one of a handful of states still trying to work out its budget for this fiscal year. While the debate drags out the costs mount. In higher education, low income students dependent on the state’s need based MAP grant program are seeing college opportunity put at risk, talented new faculty are taking offers to work elsewhere, successful faculty with millions of dollars in grants who produce our nation–leading number of patents and actually run small businesses themselves are looking elsewhere, and layoffs are mounting. Hopefully we will restore some certainly to our budget situation soon. I have written previously about the need for Illinois to turn around its billion dollar slide in higher education funding over the last decade.

However, it is also necessary to talk about what higher education can do to most productively use its resources to maximize its service to students and the state. The remodeling is even more urgent in the face of continued revenue concerns for this year and the foreseeable future.  In most states pensions and healthcare costs are gobbling up resources like a giant Pac Man ravaging the landscape. Our case for new revenues and support can only be enhanced if we can show we are doing everything we can to ensure the dollars we do have or may be given are being used well. In Illinois we will soon launch a “higher education efficiency and effectiveness initiative” in partnership with the National Governors Association and the Governor’s office to support such work.

I use the term “remodel” here very intentionally. Most of us have been involved in a remodeling project. The first thing we know is that it always takes longer and costs more than expected. It is also targeted. Some rooms in our higher education house are in fairly good shape. For example, research in our best institutions continues to provide massive returns to the economy around patents, products, and innovations. Other rooms are reminiscent of kitchens with lime green appliances or poorly plumbed bathrooms whose appearance discourages use. In speaking around the country I have found partnerships for change with higher education colleagues harder to build using terms like “disruptive innovation” or with what one magazine recently termed “creative destruction” in higher education. Remodeling on the other hand allows a conversation targeting areas of higher education most badly in need of change to meet the needs of 21st century students while preserving those parts that continue to offer value.

The return on investment for a college credential in the current economy is clear. However, much must be done to remodel higher education to maximize that return for the individual and society. This is especially true if we are to meet the needs of low income, adult, and students of color that are most in need of the credential and yet currently are least likely to succeed in obtaining one even when admitted to college.  Here are some out of date rooms in our higher education house that definitely need a remodel.

Remodel Academic Delivery Models

Twenty-one percent of the adult population falls into the category of “some college no degree” (Lumina Foundation, 2014). That figure is 22 percent for the Illinois workforce. We have a college stop-out problem that rivals our high school drop-out problem. The college stop-out problem is particularly severe for low income and students of color. There is little or no return on investment for students who attend but do not complete. Their salaries are barely more than a high school graduate and many are burdened with college debt. The solutions to this problem are becoming increasingly clear as leader colleges around the country implement remodels showing positive results. Implementing those solutions to remodel our system, it turns out, is largely a matter of political and institutional will.  (For examples across the nation where colleges are exhibiting the will to implement the solutions outlined here go to ).  Included among our remodeling targets should be the following.  

Implement Guided Pathway Systems (GPS) 

The maze of options and courses that currently fill college course catalogs must be restructured to create transparent pathways to career aligned degrees that can be obtained without the excess credits that raise costs and invite failure. Once these pathways are created institutions must commit to offering the right courses at the right times. They must be offered with adequate capacity to ensure all students on a pathway can take the course they need when they need it so they can graduate in four years for a four-year degree and in two years for a two-year degree (or in one year for a one-year workforce valuable credential).  While this seems logical to most, it requires a major institutional culture shift focused on offering courses when students need them rather than when it is convenient for the institution or faculty to teach them.

Once these pathways are in place student data capacity must be ramped up to allow just in time tracking of student progress and the implementation of “intrusive advising” strategies to ensure that (a) students are properly advised so that they can choose a pathway aligned with their passions and abilities as early as possible (being an “undecided major” in your second year is a recipe for failure) and (b) students stay on their path through graduation or at least make judicious decisions about changing paths that minimize costs and delays in graduation. Changing majors to follow your passion is fine unless it means you run out of money and are forced to drop out in your junior and senior year (as almost half of students at four-year institutions do).

 Remodel Developmental Education

Despite strong efforts to improve college preparation for students (e.g., the implementation of the Common Core Standards and Assessments across states), significant numbers of students enter college in need of developmental or remedial education. We can expect more demand if we begin to enroll more adult students. Higher education addresses this challenge traditionally through offering zero credit developmental (or remedial) education courses that are supposed to move students into credit bearing work and on to degrees. That system is completely broken: students spend limited resources for courses that offer no academic credit toward a degree. Most never complete the developmental courses much less the credit bearing course in math or English for which they are being prepared. This system must be remodeled to minimize time in zero credit courses and accelerate progress to degree. One strategy showing great promise is “co-requisite” remediation. In this remodeling effort students are enrolled in the entry credit bearing course and provided just-in-time supplemental support targeting specific areas of weakness. Other remodeling efforts focus on summer preparatory courses, boot camps, and catch-up programs offered in high schools. Research is needed showing which approaches are best for students at different levels of college preparation. However, any effort to repair this broken system should be welcomed and assessed.

Ensure Quality

A major determinate of college ROI for students is the quality of the credential they earn. Quality should be defined in two ways. First is the identification and assessment of clear learning outcomes for the degree to ensure every degree carries an institutional warranty that the graduate possesses expected skills and abilities.

What should a student know and be able to do who obtains the degree? That definitional process should be led by faculty but informed by the input of employers who receive graduates with those degrees, alumni, and students themselves.

Clear learning outcome definitions are a part of the growing attention to competency-based degrees and efforts by higher education partners to advance the conversation on quality and learning outcomes in college (e.g., the LEAP work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Degree Qualifications Profile initiative supported by the Lumina Foundation). However, we have a long way to go before the system abandons classroom seat time as a proxy for learning. This is despite the fact that most would agree that if you are focused on class room seat time as a proxy for learning, you are focused on the wrong end of the student.

The second dimension of quality is defined by the post-graduation economic and civic outcomes of the degree. Many states are putting considerable resources into longitudinal data systems that tie college data to workforce data.  It should be common practice to issue regular reports showing employment outcomes by institution and program. Longitudinal systems also could allow us to look at civic outcomes for graduates as well (e.g., voting behavior). Surely the quality of a degree should be questioned if the majority of graduates cannot find employment in their career after a reasonable time and evidence no positive civic outcomes attributable to their education.

Serve the Adult Learner

No group would benefit more immediately from a college credential, enrich the quality of education for all students, and help solve revenue problems for institutions than the tens of millions of adults already in the workforce who lack any college credential, especially the college stop-outs who have some college but no degree. The adult learner “market” for higher education dwarfs the high school graduate market in most states. Twenty-two percent of the Illinois workforce falls into this category. To maximize access, completion and improved quality of life for these learners the system must rethink its academic models and implement strategies including but not limited to:
·        expanded prior learning assessment at scale to give adults credit for knowledge they bring from prior education and work/life experience, accelerate progress to degree, and reduce costs;
·        strong partnerships with those who currently employ these undereducated adults to strategically manage costs, time, travel, and child care demands that are the primary barriers to adult college completion; and
·        delivery of learning through on-line, blended, project based and other strategies that increase relevance and accessibility for adult learners.

In general colleges must remodel systems to bring college to adults rather than making them come to college. How to do this is not a mystery. For a detailed analysis of what is required to promote adult college completion see the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s analysis (  

The framework for the strategic remodeling of academic delivery systems has been defined in the literature and  is being implemented by a minority of early adopters  (see examples at and ). We must find the will to make these changes pervasive.

These  four remodeling projects,  implementing GPS, developing co-requisite developmental education courses, ensuring quality of the degree, both academically and vocationally, and developing academic programs that serve adults best are strategies that will increase the affordability and return on investment for college degrees.  Next month’s Blog will discuss administrative and financial aid remodeling projects that are needed to update our system so that it is a proper home for 21st century students.