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.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

Let’s Have an Adult Conversation in Illinois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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