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Behind the Target: Understanding 60 Percent

AUDIO | Behind the Target: Understanding 60 Percent
The 60 percent attainment target, based on international trends and labor market projections, is critical for the American economy, society and individuals.

The following interview is with Dewayne Matthews, vice-president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation. The Lumina Foundation has set a goal to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. In this interview, Matthews sheds some light into the process by which Lumina arrived at the goal of 60 percent, discusses the importance of meeting this target and shares his thoughts on how noncredit education could be brought into meeting the overall goal.

1. How did your team arrive at 60 percent as the degree completion target for a healthy domestic workforce and economy?

We began by looking at international comparative data to see what was happening in other parts of the world. It pointed to a clear trend, in most of the world, of increasing attainment rates. Young adults in almost every developed country — and most countries around the world — are better-educated than older adults; meaning that people coming into the workforce tend to be better-educated than people retiring out of the workforce.

We saw that was not the case in the United States. In the U.S., younger workers are at about the same level of education as older workers. That was worrisome; the U.S. has fallen behind many other countries in the proportion of young adults — below the age of 35 — that have completed either a two-year or four-year college degree. We’re now only about 12th or 13th in the world in that ranking.

So we began to look at that and see, “What is the number that seems reasonable as to where the rest of the world is going?” That number seemed to be around 60 percent.

Around the same time we were looking at U.S. jobs data, we asked, “What are the number of jobs in the U.S. that will require some level of postsecondary education in the future?” The Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce did a study a few years back where they found out that about 60 percent of American jobs will require postsecondary education as early as 2018.

The combination of those two things — what was happening internationally with attainment and what was happening in the U.S. job market — pointed in the direction of 60 percent being the number the U.S. should be shooting for.

2. Looking at the worst-case scenario, what are the implications for the economy if that 60 percent target is not met?

For the economy, the implications are fairly clear. It is that the U.S. will not have the supply of individuals with the skills and knowledge that are really needed for the U.S. to be competitive in the global marketplace and for the economy to really grow the way it should be growing. There’s already evidence that the lack of individuals with the appropriate skills and knowledge is holding back economic growth. That means that companies, industries and regions of the country are not able to add the employment that they otherwise would be able to simply because there aren’t enough people with the right kinds of skills and knowledge…

Perhaps an even more important question, though, is what is the consequence for people? That’s the flip-side of the same equation. And that is that more and more individuals simply will not have the skills or the knowledge they need to be able to thrive in this environment. That means they won’t get the employment, they won’t get the income. And that’s a severe problem. The consequences of not having some kind of postsecondary education are very severe now and they’re only getting worse.

Basically, it means whether or not you are going to be able to get into the middle class.

3. Delving deeper into the target, what are the implications for noncredit programming that usually makes up the bulk of the courses for industry certifications or ongoing, just-in-time learning for working professionals?

When we began to look at this question of educational attainment — the 60 percent rate — we found that what is really behind this is the demand for skills and knowledge. It really is an agenda about people learning. It’s about people getting the chance to develop the skills and knowledge they need to be able to be successful in this changing, knowledge-based economy.

Whether it’s a noncredit course, a course offered as part of somebody’s employment, education or skills that people might develop in the workforce, or might develop in the military or through some other kind of training or workforce development; all of these activities develop skills and knowledge.

If we can figure out a way to capture that knowledge, capture those skills, make sure people get the recognition they deserve for their learning and then, most importantly, have the ability to apply it to further education — including a two-year or four-year college degree — this is good for everybody. It helps the nation capture and use these skills people have development, regardless of where they got them, and it gives the individual recognition for what they know and can do.

We’re putting a lot of attention into figuring out how all of this education — wherever it is obtained — represents real skills and knowledge and that people are recognized for what they know and can do.

4. The idea of accrediting noncredit programming has taken off in the past few years; we’ve seen badging and other similar programs emerge to help people display their learning that might not show up on a transcript. As a theoretical exercise, would you consider badges to be the way forward with accrediting non-degree programs, and could these types of accomplishments be integrated into the overall completion rate? Or would it be more useful to work with accreditors to assign credit for prior or informal learning?

It all boils down to whether the individual who has done this learning or who has this skill can demonstrate mastery, and that others who have a desire to know — whether they’re education providers or employers — understand what that means. The system needs to be very clear and very transparent in terms of what all of this various learning means, and then what the individual can do with that knowledge.

Badges are a fine idea. The problem is that it’s not really clear what a badge represents in terms of actual skills and knowledge. If we could figure out a good framework that would allow people to demonstrate mastery and have that knowledge and skill recognized, so that an education provider or employer can know exactly what that means so they can know what that person can do, then you’ve really got something.

Then it’s not just a matter of, “I’ve got all these badges, what do they mean?” Or, “I’ve completed all these courses,” or “I’ve got all these little units of recognition.” Then, in fact, everybody is working off a common framework so they can understand what all this learning means and what the person can do with it.

That’s what’s really needed: that common framework.

5. Postsecondary education has long housed a debate about the value of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and liberal arts degrees and their relative and respective workforce outcomes. When determining degree completion target, did Lumina’s analysts have a particular type of degree in mind?

Actually, no. When we began to look at this … we were asking the question “What are the skills and knowledge that the person needs?” Not necessarily “What is the right education program we need to be delivering?”

You tend to ask these questions in terms of “How many two-year degrees do we need?”, or “How many four-year degrees do we need?” or “How many STEM degrees do we need?” as opposed to asking the question “What are the skills and knowledge that people really need?”

When you look at it that way, what we found is that it’s a mix of skills. A lot of it has to do with technical skills; the sorts of things one might expect in an occupational education program or a professional education program … It’s also true that people need a general bucket of high-level skills such as abstract reasoning skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills. These are also very, very important and employers actually report that those are the skills that they have the most difficulty finding in current candidates for employment.

It’s not as simple as saying, “Ah! We need more machinists. Let’s go train a bunch of machinists.” … Yes we need to think about it in those terms but there’s an underlying current here, which is that all jobs and all occupations are becoming higher-skill jobs and occupations. A lot of the skills that people need are integrated knowledge or skills, the sort of things we think of as indicative of people with a higher level of education …

There’s a lot of different ways to get at those kinds of skills, including the liberal arts, but you can also learn them in occupational programs as well. It’s a more complex picture than simply saying, “Oh, okay. These are the jobs; therefore let’s start a lot of training programs that put people in those jobs.”

It’s a little more subtle and has to do with these broad sets of skills that more and more people need.

6. Is there anything you would like to add about the creation and definition of 60 percent as being the target for degree and certificate completion, and the value of that for both higher education and for the economy?

We put the goal out originally about five years ago. At the time it was seen as, at best, audacious, perhaps by some even as foolhardy; the idea that the U.S. could seriously hope to increase attainment to that level. Others, frankly, questioned the value asking, “What’s the evidence that we really need to be making such a significant commitment to increasing educational opportunity?”

But I can safely say that every piece of evidence we’ve looked at in the years since we first put the goal out, and everything we’re looking at today, suggests that it’s the right goal and that we had the right idea in the first place. And, in fact, that 60 percent is around the right number; if anything it might actually be a little bit low.

It all boils down to the fact that we have moved into a knowledge-based economy and, frankly, a knowledge-based society. A lot of this has to do with jobs, but it also has to do with the increased complexity of society, the fact that we have people in this country who need skills and the knowledge to be able to — not just have a good job — but to be able to live in the community, to raise families, and all of the other things that come with citizenship …

We believe that people have gotten the message; the demand for postsecondary education has never been stronger. People see the benefits of it and they want access to the education. The employment data suggests that people with postsecondary credentials are in much better condition in employment markets than people who don’t have them.

The task now is to figure out: how do we get on with this and make sure that we actually provide people with the opportunity to do this?

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