What Do We Really Want To Attain?
A New Approach to Setting Postsecondary Educational Attainment Goals
Almost everyone in the United States understands that education beyond high school simultaneously promises individual students hope for a brighter economic future and contributes to the security and competitiveness of our nation. Even at this time of national political polarization and precarious economic recovery from the Great Recession, legislators, educators, and business leaders have united in proclaiming that a greater fraction of our population must complete college.
Strategy Labs, with support from the Lumina Foundation, announced in September 2014 that 23 states had by then set “attainment goals” for certificates and degrees. Sometime between 2020 and 2025, each of these states says it intends to substantially boost the percentage of its population with a college certificate or degree.
Such attainment goals delight those of us in community and technical colleges. If we achieve them, more people will enter our programs and we’ll retain them through their studies. In other words, we’ll increase access and excellence, dual aims that we’ve pursued for decades.
It’s natural for us to feel euphoria over unaccustomed support for more enrollments and credentialing. We should ask ourselves some questions, however, whose answers could lead us to think and act differently from the ways currently in vogue.
First, which new people will attain college credentials? And second, who won’t be attaining college credentials?
The state of Washington has set the highest ten-year attainment goals in the country. Its Legislature has mandated that the Washington Student Achievement Council oversee a roadmap which will lead to 70 percent of the state’s working-age citizens holding a college certificate or degree by 2023 and for 100 percent of the citizenry to earn a high school diploma.
Right now, about 51 percent of Washington’s working-age population already holds college credentials. Thus, the state needs an increase of 19 percent to reach its goal.
That’s an ambitious aim, but it’s achievable. Fortunately, many Washingtonians might become part of the additional 19 percent in the next seven years, including these groups whom we might call “ripe to be credentialed”:
• Future high school graduates, since if the state reaches its goal of 100 percent high school diplomas there will be many more of them to draw upon than at present.
• People who started college but left for some reason and might be persuaded to come back.
• Workers in responsible jobs whose careers can demonstrably be enhanced if they attend college and earn a credential, or who’ve lost their jobs and will receive state support to attend college for retraining purposes.
• People leaving the military, who have educational benefits coming to them. Naturally, the remaining 30 percent of the state’s population is least likely to be credentialed. Washington’s attainment goals — and those of the other 22 states with similar goals — omit mention of this group, which comprises:
• Unemployed or chronically overworked people.
• People of color.
• People with limited English proficiency, including immigrants and refugees.
• Homeless people. People with mental illness.
• Young people in foster care.
• People in or formerly in prison. People who don’t have any relationship with someone who’s earned a college credential.
The fact is that Washington State and all the other states that have set attainment goals want to achieve access and excellence without attending to genuine inclusiveness. In essence, they are saying that they’re willing to exclude from their attainment goals precisely the people who most need and could most benefit from achieving them.
This “Acceptable Exclusion Approach” may not be intentional. It may not even be conscious. But once we acknowledge it, we need to scrap the approach and find something better. Fortunately, another model is at our disposal if we have the courage to try it out: the One Graduate per Household goal.
Originally proposed by Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, this goal would ipso facto oblige us to ensure that no one in any of the categories that most need a postsecondary credential is left out. Once the goal is achieved, we’ll know as we walk or drive through our communities that every dwelling — not just the ones in the prosperous neighborhoods — houses someone who’s earned a college credential.
If we decide to pursue this goal, objections will immediately be raised. “It’s not feasible.” “It’s too costly.” “It’s too radical.” “It’ll be too difficult to define our terms and measure our progress.” “Some households will never — or should never — include anyone with a college credential.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Once these objections have been refuted, as they can be, the dimensions and parameters of actions toward achieving the One Graduate per Household goal will need to be established. By whom? By the same stakeholder groups that have successfully hammered out the 23 existing state postsecondary attainment goals.
Even before legislatures and business groups join in building a national consensus, community and technical colleges may live up to their reputation as nimble and innovative institutions by taking actions like these:
• At the classroom level, invite and involve people who’ve never been to a campus before or at least come from a family with no credential-holders
• At the institutional level, launch internal and external marketing, publicity, and support campaigns to reach households with no credential-holders
• In classrooms and across campuses, document and celebrate the enrollment and graduation of people from every household that has previously been unrepresented.
Eventually, as college-by-college and regional initiatives demonstrate their effectiveness, whole states may redefine their postsecondary attainment goals away from the Acceptable Exclusion approach to the One Graduate per Household approach. At that point, a rich array of policies and activities implied by the shift in goals will inevitably present itself.
Moving in this revolutionary direction will require that people and institutions become true change agents on behalf of what all of us in this country say we believe in — namely, a chance for everyone to achieve The American Dream. What more worthwhile goal could we ever dedicate ourselves to attaining?