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Since 2008, the goal of achieving a 60-percent attainment rate—that is, 60 percent of working-age adults earning a postsecondary degree or credential—by 2025 has been a distant, but always present, concern for everyone in higher education. After all, 2025 always seemed so far away. Today, however, we’re more than halfway toward that goal year, and while we’ve moved from 38 percent to 46 percent attainment, more has to be done to get to 60 percent. In this interview, Danette Howard shares her thoughts on the challenges standing in the way of achieving the attainment goal and reflects on the work Lumina is doing to make it happen.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): As a starting point, is it feasible for the United States to achieve a 60-percent attainment rate by 2025?
Danette Howard (DH): We think that it is feasible to achieve a 60-percent attainment rate by 2025, but that’s not to say that it won’t take a significant amount of concentrated effort and hard work.
The reason we think it’s possible is that, after many years of flat attainment rates, the United States has seen steady but incremental increases in attainment rates since 2008. In 2008, we stood at about a 37.9-percent postsecondary attainment rate and now we’re at approximately 46 percent when you look at both degrees and certificates. Now, in order to get to 60 percent, we’ll have to grow attainment at a faster rate but it’s certainly possible and we lay out some steps in our new Strategic Plan that will help us get there.
Evo: What are some of the key shifts the Lumina Foundation is making to push the nation towards this critical attainment goal?
DH: In our new Strategic Plan we laid out a roadmap that will be essential to helping the nation make real progress towards getting to that 60 percent goal.
One of the key shifts is going beyond focusing on the traditional college-age population. That 16- to 24-year-old population is certainly important—especially since those who are 16 right now will be in that cohort of folks that we expect to be college graduates by the year 2025—and we include them in our roadmap to Goal 2025 because if we maintain the status quo in higher education there will be many in that traditional cohort who won’t finish.
However, we also have to focus more on returning adult students who have some postsecondary experience but never earned a credential. Beyond that, an area of new emphasis for Lumina is the over 60 million adults who have no postsecondary experience at all. We believe that those individuals have to have an opportunity to get on a postsecondary pathway that will end in a meaningful credential, which will lead to increased wages and increased opportunities for themselves and their families.
Evo: Wouldn’t the low-hanging fruit be that population of adults with some college experience? Why not focus on them rather than trying to appeal to the group of students who’ve never enrolled?
DH: We don’t think that it’s an either-or proposition—it’s a “both-and.”
Yes, you have to focus on the returning adults: those who have attempted, at one point in time, to start a college education and have attempted to earn a degree but for whatever reason had to stop or drop out. After all, as we know, life happens and perhaps there were some family situations, perhaps they had children, perhaps they had to work more than they expected. The knowledge, though, that they intended to get a postsecondary credential suggests that they would want to re-enroll and then earn that credential.
But we also can’t dismiss those individuals who never have had an encounter with postsecondary education. We know, for those individuals, that their life opportunities are limited if they don’t have any kind of postsecondary credential, especially when it comes to entering the middle class and accessing meaningful, sustaining employment opportunities. The first step for those individuals may not be a baccalaureate degree—perhaps it’s a certification or a certificate—but we want them to have some credential that will lead to further education and to further employment if they choose to pursue either of those pathways.
So, ultimately, we need to focus both on returning adults with some college but no credential as well as those adults who have had no prior postsecondary experience.
Evo: How important are initial credentials and non-degree certifications to building the labour force the economy needs?
DH: This is a conversation that shows the importance of the stackable credentialing model. In this format, as someone is on their way to a bachelor’s or associates degree, they earn short-term credentials that have labor market value and can lead to a promotion or greater earnings.
For an individual that doesn’t have any type of postsecondary credential, these shorter-term credentials are very important and meaningful. It’s important that these kinds of credentials lead to further pathway opportunities and that there should be no dead-end credentials that close off future possibilities for students. Instead, these short-term credentials or certifications should always lead to more significant learning opportunities or employment opportunities.
Evo: What are some of the critical shifts you feel higher education institutions need to make to facilitate the 60-percent attainment rate?
DH: First of all, higher education institutions can make sure that every student is on a pathway to securing a meaningful credential from the time they enroll at that institution. From the research and from students’ anecdotal accounts, we know that sometimes students enroll at an institution and spend too much time and money taking classes that don’t amount to anything. This can happen for any number of reasons, perhaps they don’t receive good—or any—advising, but ultimately many students are enrolled in an assortment of classes that don’t necessarily lead toward a major or a credential and then find themselves, after a number of years, still not being able to earn a credential. When students are on a clear pathway to a credential from the beginning, they are very much less likely to waste time and money and more likely to earn a credential more quickly.
Another thing that many institutions are now doing—and doing quite well—is ensuring that fewer students have to spend a lot of time taking developmental or remedial courses. Oftentimes, when students go to college and are a bit underprepared, they have to spend one or two—and sometimes even three or four—semesters taking developmental or remedial courses that don’t award college credit. Many institutions are now combining the developmental courses with credit-bearing courses—this is called co-requisite remediation—and it gets students on that pathway towards graduation much more quickly.
Many campuses are also offering competency-based education opportunities and prior-learning assessments, so that all students’ learning counts toward credentials when they enroll. Non-traditional students bring experience from the military, experience from the workforce, knowledge from all kinds of places and its critical that they can transfer that experience and earn academic credit for their knowledge. After all, this could allow them the opportunity to take fewer traditional courses and earn a credential more quickly.
These are all things that we’re seeing within the traditional university setting.
Evo: What role do non postsecondary providers have to play in transforming the skill development landscape for students and how would that play into the attainment rate?
DH: As a starting point, it’s important that we recognize that colleges and universities aren’t the only game in town.
One of the key themes of our new Strategic Plan is that learning can, should and does happen anywhere and everywhere—and that learning should be validated and credentialed. We do not believe that learning should be confined to the traditional campus setting but that in fact learning happens in the workplace, in places like museums and libraries, and that if an individual student can demonstrate their learning, it should be validated and ultimately credentialed.
A great deal of our work is going to be focused on building infrastructure and pathways that will allow an individual to demonstrate learning that happens in places beyond traditional postsecondary settings. That means that we will be developing and bolstering the existing partnerships we have with non-institutional postsecondary providers that do just that: validate and then ultimately credential learning that happens outside of the traditional institution.
Evo: What will be some of the central challenges to achieving this goal?
DH: One of the real challenges learners face is that postsecondary education is very expensive, so one of the challenges that we have taken on is figuring out how to support the system of postsecondary education becoming more affordable for students. In our Strategic Plan we reference an affordability benchmark, which will be receiving much more of our attention over the next four years. We will not only be focusing on affordability from the students’ perspective but we will also be thinking about how institutions can drive the cost of delivering education down. We will also be thinking about the role of state and federal policy in improving the affordability of postsecondary education and in fostering an environment that is conducive to, and facilitates, more diverse learning pathways for students.
The second challenge is in ensuring we’re building a postsecondary system designed for the students actually enrolling today. One of the very common myths that persist about postsecondary students is that most of them are traditional, 18- to 22-year-olds living on campus and being supported by their parents. Lumina has a body of work called Today’s Students that brings attention to the fact that most of today’s students do not fall within that definition. Many are older, many have responsibilities of their own—either taking care of children or older relatives—many work full-time or part-time hours off-campus, many live off-campus. So what kind of policies are necessary to support the postsecondary aspirations of those types of students? Lumina will continue to address the challenges and policy barriers that limit opportunities for today’s students to be successful.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the thinking that went into this strategic plan and what you’re hoping to see it accomplish?
DH: As we began to develop this plan, we thought a lot about the unique role that Lumina is able to play within this space. We take our responsibility as a thought leader within this space very seriously—we know that there are some things that we are able to say and do that others are not, and we also know that there are things we are able to say and do that, if we don’t, others won’t.
That’s why you will see reflected in this plan a commitment to also develop a body of work to support incarcerated individuals, which is a new population for us. That’s also why you see a body of work focused on adults with no postsecondary education, which we discussed earlier. That’s why you will see a recognition that, while we do understand that we are a leader in this area, we acknowledge that we can’t do this work alone. We will continue to rely heavily on the vast array of key partners that we have in the field and from whom we learn and lean on very heavily to continue to move us forward toward Goal 2025.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To read Lumina Foundation’s new Strategic Plan, please click here.
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Author Perspective: Analyst