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Oklahoma's Brain Gain
A comprehensive drive to increase the percentage of state residents with college degrees

By Pamela Burdman
Norman, Oklahoma

"Seniors!" You are almost there!" reads the bold caption above the black-and-white image of a female student sprinting toward the ten-yard line, cap balanced on her head, gown billowing in the wind. Smaller print below provides details about deadlines to apply for graduation. The ad, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, appeared in The Oklahoma Daily last spring.

"Do you want to earn a million dollars?" asked another ad. "Graduate! In the course of their careers, college graduates earn $1 million more than their peers without degrees."

At Rose State College, near Oklahoma City, the campaign goes by the name, "Finish What You Start." Glossy posters underscore the value of receiving an associate's degree: "Don't Stop Short," "Picture You Getting Your Degree!" and "Atta Girl!" are among the slogans sported by smartly dressed mannequins. Another, with the simple caption, "Wow!" shows a wide-eyed young man staring at a wad of cash.

At high schools around the state, young people are greeted by posters ("Can't Afford College? Yes You Can!") offering information about the state's need-based scholarship program, and plugging an 800 line to counsel students about going to college. Another series, targeting middle school students, features space alien Kyra promoting the importance of studying.

Oklahoma education officials hope flashy posters, like this one from Rose State College, will persuade students to complete their degree programs.
 

"Our focus is on making it cool to go to college," said Associate Vice Chancellor Dolores Mize, who oversees K-16 initiatives for Oklahoma. The effort is receiving high marks: In a study of 86 social marketing campaigns targeting high school and middle school students, the Pathways to College Network recognized Oklahoma as "the best overall."

To explain why college hasn't been "cool" in a state where high school graduation rates exceed national averages, analysts look to the state's large rural population, low per-capita income, and populist roots. "The history of the state supports the notion that higher education is not valued," said Jerome Weber, professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma. "Economic opportunities have not been seen as being linked to higher education."

Populism translated into anti-elitism, "an atmosphere not very conducive to a great appreciation of higher education," said state Representative Bill Nations, a Democrat who sits on the higher education committee.

The advertising spots are the most visible element of a comprehensive drive to change that equation through a series of initiatives set in motion under former Chancellor Hans Brisch and aimed at increasing the percentage of Oklahomans with college degrees.

"We don't have enough students in Oklahoma going to college, their retention rates are low, and we still need more college graduates in the state," said Paul Risser, an Oklahoma native and former president of Oregon State University, who took over for Brisch two years ago and embraced the emphasis on boosting the state's intellectual capital.

The centerpiece of the effort, named Brain Gain 2010, envisions increasing the percentage of Oklahomans with college degrees by 40 percent from 1996 to 2010.

While posters, videos and websites are attempting to change students' attitudes about college, other programs address obstacles such as poor preparation, affordability and the need to help students succeed once they get to college:

  • ACT's Educational Planning and Assessment System (EPAS) helps teachers evaluate student learning in the eighth and tenth grades to guide them in preparing for college.
  • A need-based scholarship, the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP) enrolls low-income students as early as eighth grade and guarantees grants to those who successfully complete the course requirements and stay out of trouble.
  • A performance funding scheme using the "Brain Gain" moniker rewards two- and four-year colleges for improving retention and graduation rates.
  • Dozens of retention and graduation programs at the state's two research institutions, 11 regional universities and 12 community colleges have emerged in response to state goals and incentives.

Risser has made some modifications to the programs he inherited. He adjusted Brain Gain formulas to reflect the diversity of institutions, for example. He also added $800,000 in Brain Gain grants to support campus projects aimed at tackling obstacles to completion. And he is talking to industry leaders not simply about expanding employment opportunities, but about stressing the importance of a college background for existing jobs. "I'm happy with the suite of activities we have under way," he said.

 
Paul Risser has expanded Oklahoma's "Brain Gain" program since becoming chancellor at the state university system two years ago.
(Photo by Lisa Hoke, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The programs also win rave reviews from national higher education leaders. "I think they've done really spectacular work," said Paul Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. "I frequently cite Oklahoma as a place that's doing things right."

But so far, college graduation levels have improved only modestly. In 1996, according to a report from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 20.1 percent of Oklahomans over 25 held bachelor's degrees, lower than the national proportion, 23.6 percent. By 2000, Oklahoma had risen to 20.2 percent, and by 2003, college grads hit 21.9 percent of the state population. At the same time, however, national figures increased to 25 percent in 2000 and 26.5 percent in 2003. So despite its improvement, Oklahoma still faces a challenge moving out of the bottom quartile: Its ranking has actually fallen from 39th place among the 50 states in 1996 to 42nd place in 2003.

The original Brain Gain vision called for increasing the percentage of bachelor's degree-holding Oklahomans to 28 percent by 2010, and doubling the percentage of those with associate's degrees. Officials say they may not get there, but the trend is positive.

After years of investment that allowed the system to increase merit scholarships and endowed professorships during Brisch's tenure, progress has been stalled by a state budget shortfall that led to a two-year 11 percent decline in appropriations for the Oklahoma State Regents, who have constitutional authority over all of the state's public institutions as well as the state's scholarship program. Tuition rose by an average of 34 percent during the last three years, as legislators relaxed scrutiny over percentage increases in favor of a general guideline not to surpass the average of peer institutions.

"We've raised tuition more than most of us have felt comfortable with," said Larry Williams, president of Northeastern State University, where tuition and fees have gone from $2,116 a year for 15 units to $3,000 in the last three years.

 
Joseph Cappy, vice chairman of the Oklahoma State Regents, has insisted that campuses improve their performance to receive higher appropriations.
(Photo by Lisa Hoke, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
But, unlike their counterparts in many states, Oklahoma's legislators actually increased funding for the state's innovative need-based scholarship even while decreasing higher education appropriations. In three years, OHLAP funding increased five-fold from $2.9 million to $15.1 million even as higher education's share fell from $860 million to $802 million.

OHLAP was created in 1992 for students from families earning $24,000 or less. The threshold was increased to $32,000 in 1999, and to $50,000 in 2000. Students enroll in the eighth, ninth or tenth grade by pledging to pursue a 17-unit course pattern. They must maintain a 2.5 grade point average in those courses, attend school regularly, and stay out of disciplinary trouble. The scholarship is pegged to tuition at public institutions, but also can be used at any of the state's 12 private institutions.

A public awareness campaign funded by a 1999 federal GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant helped get the message out through posters and other means. Until then, said Dolores Mize, "Schools weren't pushing it. It really took hold when we got our GEAR UP money."

Because of the academic requirements, OHLAP functions as a preparation program as well as a financial aid program. OHLAP recipients outperform other students in the state-with average ACT scores of 21, compared to 20.6 for other students, and average grades of 3.5, compared to 3.0 for non-OHLAP students.

But the increased awareness and the higher income thresholds mean that the size and the cost of the program have mushroomed. The first class of OHLAP recipients, who started college in 1998, numbered just 619 and cost less than $1 million. But in 2008, OHLAP students enrolled in college are expected to number 17,767 and cost the state $47 million.

Already, this year's projection of $19 million for OHLAP exceeds the budgeted $15.1 million. While a gaming bill supported by voters last November could yield the additional $4 million, officials are still looking for a dedicated revenue source for the future. Risser, for one, is confident about finding one: "I have not talked to a single legislator who has made a wavering statement on OHLAP," he said.

Indeed, Bill Nations said the funding shortfall is the sort of problem he welcomes. "We hope that we're going to have trouble financing the number of scholarships that are requested," he said. "It means we've got the kids wanting to go to college."

EPAS is also a source of optimism. The program began in 1993 through a collaboration between former Chancellor Brisch and ACT, Inc. The state regents pay for schools to use pre-ACT tests called Plan and Explore to assess students in the eighth and tenth grades.

School districts participate on a voluntary basis. By last year more than 500 of the state's 540 school districts were using EPAS to assess more than 80,000 students. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, Oklahoma's average ACT score increased from 20 in 1992 to 20.5 ten years later, even though more students were taking the test. Officials also credit EPAS for a rise in test scores among Oklahoma minority students, who outscore their national peers.

Officials believe the program, which has cost the state regents less than $1 million, more than pays for itself. From 1996 to 2002, the percentage of first-time freshmen enrolled in remedial courses at state institutions decreased from 40.3 percent to 38.4 percent even though the regents expanded core entrance requirements from 11 to 15 courses in 1995. If ACT estimates of $6 in savings for every dollar spent on EPAS are correct, the state is saving more than $4 million a year in remediation costs.

"We take preparation for college very seriously," said Mize. "We've had excellent higher education leadership who realize...that, other things being equal, it's the rigor of preparation before college that is the best predictor of success. If you're going to put your effort somewhere, put it in the place it is most likely to be successful, and catch people before it's too late."

Counselors value EPAS because the assessment reports help them guide individual students. "It's one of the best things the regents do for the state of Oklahoma," said Ann Burcham, learning director at Tulsa School of Science and Technology, a public high school. "It's a dynamic counseling tool."

Located on Tulsa's north side, TSST's students are overwhelmingly low-income minorities-80 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 89 percent are African American. Most have parents who did not attend college. In addition to EPAS, Burcham says the school's partnership with the state's GEAR UP program has attracted more students to the college path.

Seniors Almetry Bailey, Tiffany Shorter, Dennique Williams and Shana Meek have participated in the program since the eighth grade, visiting college campuses and working with tutors and mentors from the institutions. Bailey says she wants to teach elementary school. Shorter is considering a career in communications or law. Williams dreams of becoming an anesthesiologist, and Meek plans to practice law. None of the students seems to question whether she will go to college.

So far, Burcham said, it looks like more than 30 percent of the class will enroll in college in the fall, compared with about 20 percent of last year's graduates. But paying for college is another story. Though all four students would qualify for an OHLAP grant, only Shana will receive one. The others didn't apply because their parents were reluctant to submit their tax forms despite encouragement from school officials.

Along with the usual hurdles to completing a B.A., students in Tulsa face an additional one: Historically there has been no public four-year campus in metropolitan Tulsa. So students had to leave the area or attend Tulsa Community College (TCC) and then transfer to one of the four institutions-Oklahoma State University (OSU), the University of Oklahoma (OU), Langston University or Northeastern State University (NSU)-that offered upper division courses through a consortium.

Recently, officials have concentrated those offerings in OSU-Tulsa and Langston, with OU focusing on the health sciences. Four years ago, NSU opened a four-year campus in Broken Arrow, 15 miles away, with lower division classes run by TCC. And Rogers State University, 30 miles away in Claremore, is transitioning from a two-year to a four-year campus.

Campus by campus, the plan is to contribute to Brain Gain. Since its origins as a vision for increasing the number of college graduates, the state regents have added teeth, transforming Brain Gain into a performance funding formula. "This whole thing was built on quicksand," said Regents Vice Chairman Joseph Cappy. "We decided to look at things that you could measure. We agreed on paying for improvement."

So far Brain Gain dollars have not approached the regents' target of two percent. The Regents began with $2 million in Brain Gain funds out of an $860 million budget in 2001-02, increased the number to $2.54 million out of $851 million the next year, but retrenched to $2.2 million the following year when appropriations fell to $768 million. This year, with the overall budget back up to $802 million, Brain Gain funding has hit $3 million, but $800,000 is dedicated to grants for promising campus retention programs. The regents hope to double the total to $6 million for next year, said Cappy.

But even at low levels, the funding formula has caused consternation among institutions. "Many of the presidents thought it was a wild idea that would phase itself out," said Cappy, a staunch proponent of performance funding. "Once they saw it wasn't going to go away, they wanted to fine tune the formula. We have not fought those changes. We just want to improve the number of young people going to college and graduating."

Because the formula is used to funnel Brain Gain dollars to schools that have shown the most improvement, it needs to address each institution's unique circumstances, said Joe Wiley, president of Rogers State University. Wiley, who chairs a presidents' committee focused on Brain Gain, cites the example of Cameron University, in Lawton, which regularly enrolls active duty U.S. Army personnel or their family members, from nearby Fort Sill, who sometimes have to transfer on short notice.

Working with Risser, the Brain Gain committee determined that those kinds of circumstances can best be addressed by allowing institutions to choose some of the benchmarks used to evaluate them. While first-year retention, six-year graduation rate, and number of degrees granted figure in the formula for each school, institutions can add other factors, such as improving retention of Hispanic students or part-timers.

So far, all campuses have received some of the funds each year, but how they go about improving retention and graduation rates varies by campus. At the University of Oklahoma's main campus in Norman, for example, six-year graduation rates rose from 53.3 percent in 1998 to 59 percent in 2002 under the leadership of President David Boren, a former U.S. senator.

In addition to the advertising campaign, actions taken at OU range from enhanced services for students facing academic or financial difficulties to providing mid-term grade reports earlier in the semester and strengthening class identity by labeling classes according to their anticipated graduation year. But the higher graduation rates aren't easily attributable to those changes. "By far, the preeminent reason they've gone up is that we've tightened our admissions standards," said Nick Hathaway, OU's vice president for university and administrative affairs. "The rest has probably helped on the margins."

Admissions standards at the state's flagship institution once were more aligned with a populist tradition than some of its Big Twelve competitors, but gradually they have been ratcheted up, despite opposition from some football boosters. Today, in-state students must either score a 24 on the ACT or have a 3.0 grade point average and rank in the top 25 percent of their high school classes. For non-residents the requirements are higher.

Admission standards have been tightened at the University of Oklahoma, despite opposition from boosters of the university's nationally ranked football team.
(Photo by Lisa Hoke, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
OU's success underscores the difficulties for other institutions. Forty-eight miles away at Redlands Community College, in El Reno, such strategies are not an option. "I accept, understand and support the statement that Oklahoma needs more college graduates," said President Larry Devane. "I'm also a champion for people having a chance, and that's not going to produce as many graduates as being selective will. I'm willing to take a hit. The two-year school is at a disadvantage versus selective institutions that take National Merit Scholars and graduates with a B average. We're an open-access institution."

Cognizant that community colleges serve many students who are not degree-bound, Devane said he is continuing to focus on measuring student learning and student satisfaction-which feed into persistence-rather than obsessing about graduation rates. But, like OU, Redlands Community College met all of its targets in the last Brain Gain allocation.

Rose State College, however, fell short, earning only 45 of 100 possible credits, because of low graduation and retention rates, the very areas officials hope their ad campaign will help address.

At Northeastern State, after observing a seven-year slide that brought enrollment down to 8,100 in 1999, President Williams ordered a wholesale reorganization of admissions, financial aid, and advising offices. Within a year, the one-year retention rate had jumped from 59 to 69 percent, and it remains in the high sixties. New enrollments also jumped-from 905 in 1999 to 1,258 in 2004. "You have no idea how many things we changed," said Bill Nowlin, who assumed the role of dean for enrollment management. "We did some serious soul-searching. We went back to the mentality of [asking] what we can do to make students want to come here."

Located in Tahlequah, home to the Cherokee Nation, NSU serves a large proportion of Native Americans, many of whom are low-income, first-generation college students. To better assist them, the school added a college strategies session for first-year students, and upgraded their tutoring, career development, placement and assessment services.

Now, to bring graduation rates up from 36 percent to the Brain Gain target of 40 percent, officials are turning their focus to the many students NSU loses in their second year. A new program, Spotlight on Sophomore Year Experience Success, or SOS-YES, will focus on helping students through the "sophomore slump." For that initiative, NSU has received a Brain Gain grant of $75,000, and Nowlin is seeking additional support from the federal Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education.

Oklahoma State University has also been successful in applying for Brain Gain initiative funds. OSU's grant of $90,000 will support the school's new Transfer Student Resource Center. According to Jim Hull, a senior academic counselor with University Academic Services, 40 percent of OSU's undergraduates transfer from other institutions, and many face "transfer shock" upon arriving at the large research campus. Improving the graduation rate of transfer students is one of OSU's Brain Gain measures.

Another means of addressing transfer obstacles is the campus' new partnership with Northern Oklahoma College, a two-year school. The Gateway program, housed across the street from OSU's main campus in Stillwater, allows students who can't meet OSU's entrance requirements to take their first 24 units of coursework in the small class settings of Gateway, while receiving provisional admission to OSU and participating in OSU campus activities.

"This is a group of students we suspect are lacking in certain services," said Hull. "We're trying to develop a sense of place, a sense of belonging. We want them to succeed."


Pamela Burdman is a freelance writer in Berkeley and former higher education reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2005

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