Monday, June 8, 2015

Let Us Have a Smart Budget Debate about a 21st Century Illinois

It is time to put the current budget debates focused only on HOW MUCH to slash college opportunity for Illinois’ students in perspective.  Somehow in the current rhetorical fog covering the capital we continue to debate different ways to slice a shrinking pie among “starving” programs.  What cuts will result in the most suffering?  What can the state least afford to cut:  human services, education, or healthcare?   We ignore clear data that show that investing wisely in colleges to create a more educated workforce and commercialize research is a way to enlarge the pie by improving regional economies (where colleges are among major employers), raising per capita income, increasing tax revenues, and providing increased resources for other state needs.  

At a time when a quality college credential is more essential and more valuable than at any time in our history, Illinois continues to engage in the same policy debates from the last 35 years.  This has resulted in a policy and practice environment nationally that supports providing postsecondary credentials primarily to those who already occupy a privileged position in society.  (Policies prior to that period were supporting movement in the opposite direction.  Gaps were closing and access expanding through most of the 1960’s and 70’s.) Rather than engage in distracting debates about whether college is for everybody or whether somewhere we can find examples of waste that ultimately constitute an insignificant part of the budget, we must debate changes that make college a reality for millions more of those who need it most.  As our economy continues to grow and reward “non-routine” jobs and offers promising careers increasingly only to those who possess the critical, analytical, and communication skills a college credential develops, the individual consequences for the massive and growing inequality in college opportunity in Illinois are becoming, literally, life threatening.

Unfortunately, calls for change grounded in the needs of individuals in underserved groups in the name of social justice or humane values are falling on deaf ears.  As our society becomes increasingly stratified based on income and segregated by race it has become easier to objectify those being left out of the opportunity society.  Few privileged people really know any people not like them.  The “others” are easily blamed for their failure.  “Those people” can be easily cast as lacking the grit to succeed. It is a macabre 21st century revival of the Horatio Alger myth used to justify the oppression of large immigrant populations more than a century ago.

A different strategic focus is needed to mobilize broadly around the significant policy, budget, and practice changes needed inside and outside of higher education to make college available to the tens of millions of people being left on the sidelines of this economy who most need it.  This is a positive return on investment (ROI) strategy.  The message must clearly demonstrate the consequences of a permanent undereducated underclass even for those who had, and whose children have, a relatively sure path to college and career.  There is probably no better case study for making this “all boats rise” argument than Illinois in 2015.

Illinois is “leading” the nation with a multi-billion dollar deficit crisis.  Draconian cuts in education, social services, and almost every area of state government have been proposed.  The unemployment rate, while improving, remains stubbornly above the national average.  Difficult “revenue enhancement” strategies are being discussed.  At the same time, a recent workforce analysis showed 150,000 jobs standing open in Illinois because employers cannot find people with the appropriate credentials and knowledge to fill them (Bishop-Josef, S., Noble, S., & Watson, S., 2015). Workforce projections clearly show that two-thirds of all the new and replacement jobs in Illinois for the foreseeable future will require a college credential.  Many believe the only way out of this crisis is to grow our way out with a thriving economy.  They are probably right, but believing we can create that economy given the current education level of our workforce is, at best, magical thinking.

In the midst of all this, Illinois continues to strive to reach an education goal set in 2009:  60 percent of its workforce with a quality college credential by 2025.  The current percentage of the Illinois workforce with a two- or four-year degree stands at 43 percent.  That reflects a three percent gain since 2009 that, sadly for the country, places Illinois among the best performing states in the nation. It is, of course, nowhere near the pace of improvement needed.  The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently analyzed the impact of reaching the 60 percent goal for Illinois. The analysis shows that were Illinois at the 60 percent level in 2015 the increase in per capita income would produce more than $900 million in additional tax revenue for the state annually.  In a separate economic analysis (McMahon, 2015) showed that investments in Illinois higher education produce dramatically higher returns than taxpayers could earn on taxed funds in any other area.  

If Illinois is going to grow its way out of its budgetary quagmire, it must invest now in creating the college-educated workforce its recovery requires:  a workforce that also will place far fewer demands on it prison, public assistance, unemployment, and Medicaid systems.  It also must recognize that the number of patents its universities are producing lead the nation and are a pathway to commercialization, business start-ups and jobs.

Given Illinois’ demographics, almost all of the growth in educated people the state needs must come from low income and people of color, including adult learners. That is true for almost all states. These are the very groups we have failed most over the years, helping produce a level of income inequality in Illinois that is among the ten worst in the nation (McNichol, E., Hall, D., Cooper, D. & Palacios, V., 2012).

Illinois cannot afford a debate over whether these people are “college material” or whether “college is for everyone.”  It cannot continue to debate whether to cut off one or both arms of its colleges.  The state and its higher education system must mobilize, invest, and redesign policies and practices to provide a quality college credential to millions more of its citizens.  These actions will solve the deficit crisis and increase Illinois’ economic vitality. 

Illinois is a large state with particularly large challenges, but it is not alone.  Recent data show many states facing similar challenges.  The investment required to dramatically raise education attainment levels is admittedly large.  Some states are rising to that challenge.  The return on that investment to create a college-educated citizenry is far greater and, most importantly, it benefits everyone.  It is equally true that the costs of a growing permanent undereducated underclass threaten us all.

So, at this crucial time, let us forego the distracting sideshow debates, avoid whining about the impact of cuts, and keep our eye on the prize.   We must focus on how to most wisely invest in higher education, ensure accountability for return on that investment, and create the workforce and economy that will truly turn around Illinois.

Bishop-Josef, S., Noble, S., & Watson, S. (2015). Ensuring Illinois’ global success. Retrieved from
McMahon, W.W. (2015). Benefits and costs of state budget changes to higher education. University of Illinois: Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Retrieved from

McNichol, E., Hall, D., Cooper, D. & Palacios, V. (2012). Pulling apart: A state by state analysis of income trends. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved from

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Is Fairness Still an Illinois Value?

Illinois has set an audacious goal to have 60 percent of its workforce with a high quality college credential by 2025. Meeting this goal is essential to the quality of life for Illinois citizens.  Those left out of the college mix will be relegated to the life of the working poor since two thirds of all new and replacement jobs going forward (and almost all of the middle class jobs) will require a college credential.

Meeting the goal also is essential if the State is to grow its way out of the current financial crisis. Without a 21st century, college-educated workforce Illinois will not only fail to attract good jobs; it will have trouble keeping those already in the State.  If 60 percent of our workforce had a two or four year degree today it would likely mean more than $900 million in additional tax revenue for the State annually. This is the return on investment (ROI) of educating Illinois without even including the reductions in expenditures for public assistance, unemployment, health care, and crime which have occurred in other states as education levels rise. Educating Illinois is the most certain way to grow our way out of the budget crisis.

The leadership in Illinois faces difficult choices in the current budget climate. The State can choose to focus only on trying to cut its way out of its budget problems producing draconian reductions in state services, including support for public higher education. Illinois is already solidly in the bottom half of states in its support for higher education per full time student. Further proposed cuts to higher education would result in Illinois being sixth from the bottom in state support, grouped with a state like Michigan (not an economy we would want to emulate). After experiencing modest growth in our education attainment levels over the last five years (a tribute to our colleges in these difficult times) 43 percent of the State’s workforce has a two or four year college degree.  The Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success details the goals and strategies so that more Illinois residents have affordable access to high-quality postsecondary education opportunities to prepare them for the workforce. However, tuition increases, declines in state need based aid, and other factors are producing declining enrollments across the higher education system. Sixteen thousand more students leave Illinois to attend college than enter the State to do so: a talent drain that threatens our economy.  We cannot afford to accelerate these trends.

Another solution to budget woes would be a balanced approach to the crisis. This balanced approach would include new revenues, reductions, and greater efficiencies. This is the approach advocated by thoughtful analysts of Illinois’ budget woes in independent think tanks across the State. Ideas for the best way to generate revenues are varied but the need to explore the possibilities is clear. Many of the revenue strategies have been voiced by state leaders on both sides of the political aisle: reinstate, at least partially, the lapsed state income tax with a plan for gradual reduction over time, put 21st century tax policies in place including progressive taxation and increase revenues from the fastest growing service sector of the economy. Paired with less draconian reductions and greater efficiencies this approach would allow the State to move forward without so severely damaging education opportunity and the services needed by the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) has proposed a budget for higher education that is basically flat for next year with the exception of an increase in MAP funding to address our college affordability challenges. IBHE believes, based on months of meetings with colleges, that this is a responsible budget. The balanced approach would allow for the IBHE budget to be enacted. Given such a budget the Board is committed to launching, in cooperation with state leadership an “efficiency and effectiveness” initiative in Illinois to ensure every dollar we have is used to the maximum benefit of students.

IBHE also is committed to working with state leadership to streamline the State regulatory environment that adds significant costs to colleges that students must bear, providing “regulatory relief” to our system. Streamlining strategies include: (a) cutting through the complex maze of procurement regulations that demand large staffs to address and threaten colleges’ ability to participate in multi-state purchasing agreements for insurance, technology, etc. that already save tens of millions of dollars and could save more (b) eliminating policies that add costs but not value to capital construction efforts, and (c) reducing the burden of unfunded mandates that have grown like stalactites in a cave over time.

All of this can and should be part of a balanced approach to preserving fairness in education opportunity in Illinois. The alternative, massive cuts to university  budgets, will (a) further reduce affordability for middle and low income families (b) increase the talent drain out of state (c) threaten the programs and services needed to provide a safety net  supporting college completion for first generation, adult, and underrepresented students at a time when college gaps for these groups are growing (d) undercut our ability to grow a workforce to support economic development, and (e) threaten research that has to date made Illinois one of the leading states in generating patents that support business and job creation (almost all of Illinois patents are generated by higher education institutions). IBHE will do all it can to support decisions in Illinois that embrace fairness and target smart investment in strategies that have demonstrated ROI. Educating a 21st century workforce is one such strategy and a very important one. We can keep moving forward, even in these difficult times, with a balanced approach to our challenges. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Path to Progress Requires a “Both/And” Strategy

A very smart friend of mine recently said, “The path to education hell is paved with false dichotomies.” I could not agree more.  “Liberal arts education versus a college to careers approach”, “career and technical education versus college track curricula”, “increased college completion versus quality degrees,” all represent false dichotomies that divert us from creating student-centered pathways providing high quality learning that prepares all students for life and work. 

As states have grappled with difficult budgets another false dichotomy often derails productive discussion about the path forward to enable higher education to best serve the public good. Some would talk about nothing but the need for increased state investment in higher education, while others focus only on the need to increase higher education productivity so that it can better serve more students with less resources. External stakeholders of all sorts tend to focus on the latter while the higher education community embraces the former. Even a cursory look at the current landscape and the audacious goals that need to be met if our people, states, and country are to succeed clearly show that we need both increased public investment and increased institutional productivity to succeed. Higher education institutions cannot “efficient” their way to success even with the best innovations. Nor is there enough new money anywhere to fund success if business as usual in higher education continues to be embraced.  Here I will focus on what states (including Illinois) can do to smartly support progress on the path to an educated citizenry. In my next blog, I will focus on institutional responsibilities to increase efficiency and effectiveness.  

What must state governments do? First, they must make difficult policy decisions that allow for re-investment in higher education as an economic development strategy to increase revenue and reduce public assistance, health care, and criminal justice costs. To date, states have been doing just the opposite: slashing public higher education budgets and in essence eating their seed corn.  (See the recent report by the Center for American Progress: In Illinois, public higher education funding for operations and capital improvements has declined by more than one-third over the last decade ($1 billion when adjusted for inflation). Early in this century, Illinois paid seven of every ten dollars of the cost to educate a student at its public universities. Today the state covers only four of every ten dollars in costs. IBHE analyses suggest that had Illinois INVESTED in higher education over the last 10-15 years and achieved the goal we have set for 2025 by 2014 (60% of its workforce with a college degree), the state would be benefitting from additional annual tax revenues ranging from more than $600 million most conservatively to, in a more likely scenario, more than $900 million in annual revenue.

However, reinvestment does not and should not mean pouring dollars back into the same old buckets from more than a decade ago. Reinvestment should support what is needed from a 21st century higher education system. The same is true for efforts to change other higher education policies. It is not all about the money. So again, what are some specific investment/policy strategies states should consider?

1.      Support improved performance. Create a compact with higher education tying support to performance. If higher education improves performance (e.g., producing more degrees leading to careers, closing success gaps for underrepresented students, lowering costs per degree) the state commits to increase support, reinvesting the returns on a more educated workforce into the system. The reverse, of course, also applies. Such a compact should provide consistent and predictable supports: a key to increased productivity. Wildly fluctuating funding patterns hinder strategic planning and drive up costs.

2.      Target student financial support correctly. Ensure that every dollar of financial aid (state and institutional) is need-based.  Too many states and institutions are allocating too much money to students who can attend college without aid based on a skewed conception of “merit.”  Second, include all forms of financial supports (e.g., SNAP, WIA, and TANF) in an aligned program that includes adult learners. Also, structure aid to incentivize student college success.  See:;  

3.       Provide public colleges and universities regulatory relief.  If colleges are to be more nimble and productive, holding down costs and adapting to changing student needs, they must have the flexibility to innovate. Some states have conducted “policy audits” to identify and eliminate state and institutional policies that hinder innovation and add costs that students ultimately must bear.  In Illinois, for example, we are working with our partners to ensure state procurement policies do not threaten institutions’ ability to engage in multi-state purchasing agreements that save millions of dollars. Transparency and accountability are values we all share, but often, over the years, procurement, personnel, and other policies accumulate like stalagmites and many, once viewed through the productivity lens, are clear candidates for removal.
4.      Eliminate unfunded mandates. Often with the best of intentions, states and the federal government impose requirements on colleges that appear reasonable in isolation. Like regulations though they accumulate over time and greatly add to college’s cost structure. Due to the state disinvestment in higher education these costs typically fall on students. Illinois is no exception. In 2010, a Blue Ribbon Committee on higher education mandates in Illinois presented its findings to the legislature finding over 100 such mandates costing tens of millions of dollars (  Unfortunately, in 2015 little has changed.  In this budget climate it would seem appropriate to update and act on the findings of that report.  

5.      Tear down silos.  One of the clearest example of silos hampering efficiency and effectiveness is the data disconnects that prevent longitudinal analyses of P-12, higher education, and workforce/economic development data. In Illinois we are working to create a longitudinal data system that connects this data at the state and regional levels. Without integrated data the system is far less able to identify what is working, what is not, and focus resources on high impact practices. States also suffer from siloed funding streams in areas like human services, workforce training, education, and public assistance. If aligned these programs could better enable low income families to easily access all the resources available to them to support attaining the education they need to improve their economic condition. As currently structured these programs require someone with a college degree to find a way to fund college.  Integrative models that Illinois can use are available (;   Creating incentives for public/private partnerships is another way to remove silos. One effective example of this type of integration was Michigan’s “No Worker Left Behind Program” ( Only through strong state leadership can these silos be removed and programs be remodeled to better serve adult and traditional students who require a college credential to live a decent life and support a 21st century economy in Illinois.

Illinois’ progress requires both state support and increases in institutional productivity. (See More on institutional productivity strategies will be provided in my next blog. We will also be discussing these strategies at our February 3, 2015 IBHE Board meeting with a focus on improving college affordability in Illinois. For now though, as Illinois enters a very difficult 2016 budget discussion with a new governor and a legislature that convenes this month, here is hoping that we can work together to develop smart funding and streamlined policy solutions that allow Illinois’ higher education system to provide the ROI Illinois requires to succeed as a state. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's All About the ROI

States across the country, including Illinois, are struggling to meet prison, public assistance, pension, and Medicaid expenses. That is understandable. These state expenditures present immediate challenges. However, if states continue to divert money to these government assistance programs, what we have is the classic strategy of those in a hole who grabs the shovel and dig. Illinois needs to focus on strategies that create true return on investment (ROI) that will lift the state to prosperity: accelerating programs that raise per capita income and tax revenues while reducing demands for programs that only deepen dependency on limited state tax dollars.

So what might such an investment strategy look like? Well, Illinois has set a goal to ensure that 60% of  the adult workforce will have a quality college credential by 2025. What if 60% of Illinois’ adult citizens had a college degree today? What would be the ROI? At the IBHE we have done that analysis. Based on current data documenting increases in salary levels if 60% of Illinois adults were to hold a college credential, a conservative estimate would be that there could be more than $600 million annually in additional tax revenue for the state to invest. A second scenario assuming that  degrees were distributed across graduate, bachelor’s and associate’s degree levels at our current ratio shows an almost $1 billion increase in tax revenues, annually.  An investment strategy that produces $1 billion annually in additional dollars to establish economic incentives to accelerate the economy, further drive educational attainment, and meet the needs of low-income undereducated Illinoisans.

If Illinois had invested in higher education over the last decade to reach this goal today a virtuous cycle would have resulted in an upward spiral to prosperity. Instead, Illinois’ education system has been financially eviscerated. In 1997, Illinois provided seven out of every ten dollars of the cost to educate a student at a public university and, because community colleges are also supported by local property taxes, three out of every ten dollars in cost for a community college degree. Then the state budget displayed an understanding  that public support was appropriate for a public good that drove our economy and civic health. In 2012, Illinois provided only four dollars of every ten required to provide a university degree. State support for community colleges was cut almost in half.  These state funding decreases basically privatized higher education in Illinois with tuition and fees now accounting for more than half of the source of operating funds for public colleges and universities.  For those concerned about student debt, understand that the primary reason for student debt is state disinvestment in public higher education.

It is, in fact, about ROI. I am sympathetic to legislators who call higher education a “black hole” where money is invested and produces no direct account of outcomes. But that narrative must be changed in Illinois.  Higher education needs to draw a brighter line between investment and outcomes. Illinois institutions of higher education need to do a better job demonstrating clearly how they are doing everything they can internally to increase productivity and contain costs for students. However, colleges and universities cannot rely solely on efficiency measures to help the state reach the 60% goal.  It will take state investment tied to clear expectations for ROI.

Based on statewide planning, the higher education blueprint, the Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success, supports goals to reduce college completion gaps for first generation, low income, and students of color (our gaps have widened over the last five years);  to increasing affordability for middle and low income students, families and taxpayers (Illinois, over the last five years has been among the worst states  in declines in affordability), and create better pathways to increase the number of  undereducated adults  returning to college to complete a postsecondary credential or degree (without them, the 60% goal cannot be reached). Higher education leaders, in strong cooperation with elected officials, and policy makers must work to match reinvestment in higher education with specific improvements in these areas that are crucial to Illinois’ future. If, with investment, more Illinoisans do not succeed educationally, then the higher education system will be held accountable.  However, if the completions rates progress in an upward trend, then investments should increase significantly. It is that simple. And the ROI for that investment will be significant. There is a strong and positive correlation across the country with lower Medicaid, criminal justice, unemployment, and public assistance costs and higher percentages of the population with a college credential. A more educated population is healthier, less engaged with the criminal justice system, more productive, and has higher wages. It is a no brainer.

The finish line has changed. A high school degree by itself is no more than a ticket to working poor status in this economy. It is a college credential that is the new finish line, the new producer of ROI for a state. Illinois must find a way to balance immediate demands on its resources with investments in the future.  It is our choice. Many states, post-recession, are reinvesting in higher education knowing the payoff. California, for example, just created a $50 million “innovation fund” to reward implementation of initiatives to meet state goals of increasing degree production. What will Illinois do? Keep digging or invest?  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Do We Still Care About Fairness?

“Everyone deserves a fair shot.” That phrase captures a fundamental value that is characteristically American. Whether or not we have historically lived that value through our policies and practices is more than an open question, but most Americans have and still do embrace the idea of fairness. When something comes to be perceived as not fair we typically oppose it. Well it is time to put the fairness issue at the center of our conversations about college success. There are few more important issues about which we need to ensure fairness than the chance to earn a college credential. As I have documented in several previous blogs, the college credential is more valuable today economically than it has ever been, and its value is increasing at record rates. Those who are left out of the college mix (and here I use college broadly to include any post-high school degree or certificate with valuable workforce use) can hope for little more than working poor status in America’s 21st century society. Given the growing talent demands of our economy, it is no exaggeration to say that the future well-being of our state and country depend on “everyone having a fair shot” at not just entering but also completing college.

The current data suggest we are being far from fair. Nationally, four out of five wealthy 24 year olds have a four year college degree. Barely more than a third of middle class 24 year olds have one. That percentage drops to one out of ten college graduates for 24 year olds in the lowest income quartile. The gaps in college attainment (two and four year) for students of color in Illinois are growing and remain stubbornly large nationally. So unless you are one of those people who believe talent and the ability to contribute are defined by the wealth of the family into which one is born or the color of one’s skin (in which case you can stop reading now), we have a real fairness problem.

All of our institutions of higher education in Illinois and almost all nationally have gaps in college completion for low income students and students of color. Let’s think about that for a moment. These are students who have been accepted to college: overcoming inequities in many of their K-12 schools, successfully completing the maze of application and financial aid processes, and successfully enrolling. Yet they still fail to complete college at much higher rates than privileged or white students. Does that sound fair?

Our colleges are made up of good people who would like their students to do better. The good news is that  we now know how to remodel our system to give all of our students, especially students who are low income, first generation, or students of color, a fair shot at that ever more valuable college credential. Colleges across the country have put in place a set of policies and practices that have dramatically increased their fairness and reduced the gaps ( Yet they remain pioneers -- too few in numbers. At the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), we are working intensely with three of our institutions (City Colleges of Chicago, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and University of Illinois at Chicago) and want to work with all of our institutions eventually to do this remodeling. Much of the work is captured in the approach call Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) as part of truly “game changing” strategies for higher education ( Here is how, in part, it works.

First, we know most students have limited time and resources to complete college. Rather than confronting them with a maze of general education and major choices codified in a course catalog the size of the King James Bible, the institutions engaged in remodeling quickly help their students identify meta-majors that define a general pathway to health sciences, education, STEM, and other major career clusters. They are then put on that path as the default option requiring them to complete key “milestone” courses at the right time to predict timely degree completion without excess credits. In this process, course selection choices are reduced but not eliminated. There are choice points (forks in the pathway) as they move forward toward a specific major. However once students make a choice they are on a default path that is direct, efficient, and difficult to leave.

Second, we know these students lack “college knowledge” about higher education’s rather byzantine systems. Hence, institutions using GPS policies and programs are redesigning advising systems to provide help to those who need it, when they need it. Most current advising systems are passive. Typically advisors see either students who are near failure or high achieving students who are determined to plan every detail of their schedules to maximize success and minimize uncertainty. As one provost put it, advisors need to intervene with the “murky middle” for who targeted, quality advising interventions can make a difference. These intrusive advising systems are based on high quality data that allow just-in-time interventions. For example, one institution found, based on outcomes from 10 years of previous data (this approach is called predictive analytics) that if students in a certain pathway did not complete certain courses at a certain time they had a 95 percent chance of taking five or six years to complete a degree. Knowing that the “choice” to not take those courses was a $20,000 decision that also reduced the likelihood of completing at all, the institution designed their registration system to alert students who did not enroll early in those key courses, and ultimately blocked the students from the enrollment process if they failed to enroll in those courses until they visited an advisor who would clearly lay out the implications of their avoidance of those courses. This is just one example of the kind of advising/direction that can be provided to students utilizing good student information systems now available to every college and integrating these predictive analytics with intrusive advising systems.

Third, the life circumstances of many of these students will suggest going “part time.” Numerous studies of what predicts college completions conclude that going part time means never finishing for almost all students. Therefore, institutions are creating programs to increase the “full-timeness” of all students. These range from 15 (credit hours) to finish (on time) programs to block scheduling programs being implemented across the country. Block scheduling, for example, requires the institution to ensure that all the courses a student needs to finish are organized into morning, afternoon, or evening blocks. This provides students who need to work a predictable schedule so that they can go to school full-time, either during the morning, afternoon, or evening, and work in the alternative time of mornings, afternoons, or evenings. These programs have proven enormously effective in increasing full-time status and successful completions for working students.

Another barrier to completion is that many students come to college underprepared.  The traditional institutional approach has been to enroll them in developmental/remedial education. These are zero credit courses that cost the same as credit bearing courses and eat up limited financial aid dollars. This would not be so bad if it worked, but it doesn’t. Studies continue to report that students who are placed in more than one developmental education course have almost no chance of getting a degree. Even students who complete these courses (not that many) do not succeed in the next credit bearing course at reasonable rates. Institutions are remodeling development education programs to improve student success by employing better diagnostic testing to understand what the student really knows and doesn’t know. Students are placed in credit bearing courses with co-requisite supplemental instruction to address targeted deficiencies. Catch up courses – often using modules – are offered so students can focus on what they do not know, learn it in a self-paced way supported by technology, and accelerate progress to successful course completions. Increasing student success in these courses results in increased college completions. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is launching this type of supplemental instruction approach in its math courses in the fall of 2015.

Much more is being done to improve success for underrepresented, underserved students. I have only touched on a part of what higher education institutions know to do.  The results are in. Where these remodels are being implemented well, gaps for underserved groups are being significantly decreased or eliminated. This is not rocket science. It takes institutional leadership, hard work, and a willingness to put student success first. This means putting it before what is comfortable for faculty, advisors, and other vested interests on the campus.

It is time to get this done. By focusing on fairness, lives will be improved, and talent demands in the economy will be met. There can be no excuses. It is the responsibility of the leaders and faculty of Illinois higher education to implement these effective practices at every public, private, and for-profit college in Illinois. The IBHE stands ready to partner to make this happen. 

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  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.