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Rising to the Attainment Challenge: States Target Data, Equity

A growing number of states are setting ambitious goals to increase the numbers of people who complete education and training after high school. But as we saw at a convening of state policymakers brought together this week by Lumina Foundation, progress is about more than numbers.

Lumina supports a national goal by 2025 of 60 percent of adults with postsecondary credentials such as degrees or high-quality workforce certificates. This is a significant increase from the current national level of 45.8 percent of Americans with such credentials. Lumina wants to support states that recently have set their own goals for educational attainment, and so the foundation is giving 12 states financial and technical support through Attainment Challenge Grants. These states convened in Phoenix for progress reports and idea-sharing.

Danette Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer, said the goal is about making people’s lives better.

“We want it to be about the lives behind the number. Because behind every statistic are people whose lives will be forever changed if they have the opportunity to secure that postsecondary credential.”

States agreed on this key message throughout the conference: We have to get serious about changing both the opportunities and the outcomes for students of color and students who are low-income. We must close these equity gaps.

“Across the nation, when you disaggregate the data there are significant long-standing gaps by race and ethnicity,” Howard said

“Even states that have very high overall attainment rates sometimes also have very high equity gaps. And there’s no way we’re ever going to get to 60 percent unless we get very serious about addressing those equity gaps.”

Racial and economic justice are at the center of Lumina’s new strategic plan, and those concepts are linked to quality. We don’t support a stratified system that presumes that specific credentials –for example, career-oriented certificates rather than degrees—are the default choice for certain groups.

And Lumina is committed to the idea that all learning beyond high school counts—no matter where it happens or how the learning occurs.

“It doesn’t matter how much time a person spends in a traditional classroom and within the confines of a traditional university campus,” Howard told the conference.

The competencies are the currency that should be recognized and can be converted into a credential.

“What matters are the competencies that a person is able to demonstrate and the knowledge that a person is able to show that he or she has mastered. So, the competencies are the currency that should be recognized and can be converted into a credential.”

We also talked about quantifying the learning that contributes to high-quality certificates and certifications.

Rachel Zinn, director of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, led one of the panels. Her group is part of the nonprofit National Skills Coalition, which advocates for state and federal support for “middle-skill jobs” that require more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

Zinn said employers have been saying for a long time that these less-than-bachelor’s degree credentials are important, but we haven’t known a lot about counting them.

“From Census data, we know that about 25 percent of U.S. adults have a non-degree credential, by which we mean a certificate, a license or an industry certification,” she said. “We really need to be counting these credentials better because we know they’re out there.”

On the panel with Zinn were Christopher M. Mullin, executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System; and Aaron Fichtner, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“It became clear that we weren’t going to help people get jobs, change their lives and get on a path to economic opportunity if we didn’t help get them an industry-valued credential,” he said.

Last year, New Jersey adopted its “65 by 25” goal, which includes a list of those industry-valued credentials.

“One goal was to make sure that we’re training people for skills that are in demand,” Fichtner said. “Secondly, we wanted to make sure that we were putting out a list that could act as some consumer protection for those in search of training.”

Aside from being in demand by employers, New Jersey’s preferred credentials are portable, stackable and lead to higher wages, advancement or job security. There’s been push-back from those who questioned the list, but the state held 10 focus groups, conducted an online survey and sought comment from stakeholders to get a range of views. Some mistakes were expected.

“We decided that we were OK if we failed in some ways,” Fichtner said.

“I think in state government we often don’t want to do anything if it’s not going to be 100 percent perfect. But we realized we had to do something.”

Mullin works for the community college system in Florida and is also part of the state Higher Education Coordinating Council, a team of local workforce and education leaders. His state’s goal is that 55 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 64 have a high-quality credential by 2025.

He’s concerned that low-income students and students of color are turning toward shorter-term credentials that may limit further education and opportunity.

“For us there’s an equity imperative,” he said. “This isn’t just getting a person to a number and then letting them go away.”

Like Howard, he cautioned against losing sight of the faces behind the statistics.

“This isn’t a numbers game, something to make us feel good,” he said. “It’s about valuing the people who may not have been valued before.

“By Lumina acknowledging that educational certificates have value, there are hundreds of thousands of Floridians who now wake up every morning and feel like they count—that they’re not some ‘other’ person living in the shadows.”

When the sessions touched on data, the emphasis was often on planning. Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of strategic impact, talked to the group about using predictive models to set attainment targets and assist in strategic planning.

“In order to reach the goals the states have set, they must understand who their residents will be in 2025, what they will need, and the numbers they must hit to get there,” she said.

“A predictive model can illuminate what a state must do and which populations they must focus on to reach their goal. This will help to prioritize practices and policies, they must develop and implement to get them there.”

It’s important to have data and targets, she said.

“A model also helps you to set annual targets to use in understanding the impact of the work and help determine if you need to make improvements or course corrections along the way."

Lumina followed a similar process in setting its own strategic goals, Brown said. The plan includes ongoing interaction with the model.

“For the model to be successful we must continually update it and use it. It is not something we just put in a drawer and pull out again four years later. It is used for ongoing planning and for decision making."

Alli Bell, a director at HCM Strategists, led a panel on data use and metrics. With her were Matt Berry, director of strategy and impact for 55,000 Degrees in Louisville, Kentucky; Beth Townsend, director, Iowa Workforce Development; and Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust.

Townsend said Iowa’s goal is 70 percent by 2025. That seemed simple enough, she said.

“But what I came to appreciate was that meeting that goal was not going to be accomplished by simply measuring where your baseline was and then comparing that to your goal. There was so much more involved in terms of the data that needed to be reviewed.”

The Education Trust is a nonprofit advocacy organization for low-income students and students of color. Nichols said a lot of its work the past decade has been around looking at gaps in completion for those students. 

“We’ve known there’s been a 20-percentage point gap between black and white students in terms of their graduation rate for at least 10 or 15 years,” he said. “And actually, the gap has gotten worse.”

His group has talked to schools about successful strategies.

“The reality is, there is no secret sauce. Everyone’s doing a lot of different things,” he said.

“There are some things that we know work fairly well. But in reality it’s about leadership, about deciding that student success is a priority over all other priorities on your campus.”

Data are important to that effort, but it doesn’t have to come from a complicated system.

“You can actually look at very basic metrics that will tell you a lot about what’s happening on campus and let you effectively address those issues,” Nichols said.

“It’s really about looking at it continuously over time and carefully changing what you’re doing, semester to semester,” he said.

“You tinker with it to figure out what’s happening—and what’s going to move that needle.”

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FEATURED VIDEO
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
June 19, 2017

A Stronger Nation 2017 report uses Census data to track progress in degree attainment at several levels – nationally, in metropolitan areas, in all 50 states, and down to the county level. It also contains national data and state-specific estimates that show attainment of high-quality postsecondary certificates.