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Good Policy, Good Practice


For most of the 20th century, the United States expanded educational opportunity for its residents and in doing so served as a model for other countries. In this first decade of the 21st century, however, the United States faces some disturbing facts:

  • The knowledge economy is unforgiving for individuals who do not have education or training beyond high school-and for communities, states, and nations that do not have high percentages of their population with some education or training beyond high school.
  • While great progress has been made, opportunities for education or training beyond high school are not as widespread as most Americans think they are, nor are they as widespread as they need to be to place Americans in good jobs, fuel economic growth, promote social mobility and social justice, and sustain the country's democratic ideals.
  • Recent trends suggest that educational opportunities are in fact narrowing even as the need for education grows.
  • Most states face serious budget challenges that may translate into more funding earmarked for programs like Medicaid, and less future investment in higher education.

    The challenge is to help more people achieve higher levels of education and to use resources and funding wisely in the process. This report offers policymakers, state leaders, and institutions new strategies for fostering improvement in cost-effective ways. It also provides a set of policy levers that can help spur change.

    For those states that do not perform well in increasing the educational level of their population, the results will cost them dearly. If current trends continue, the proportion of workers with high school diplomas and college degrees will decrease, and the average personal income of Americans will decline over the next 15 years1. States vary widely in their performance as students journey through high school toward college completion. For example, the average success rate of the top 25% of states in retaining students through high school into college and having them complete an associate's or bachelor's degree on time is double that of the bottom 25%. The highest-performing states are almost three times as successful as the lowest-performing ones. Some students who initially drop out of high school or college will make their way back into the educational system. But states can increase the likelihood that students will complete high school and earn college degrees by focusing on successful policy and practice at each transition point in the educational pipeline.

    Along with improving student transitions along the educational pipeline, states also need to focus on the quality of the degrees students ultimately earn. Consider the following:

  • The most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) found that the number of college graduates deemed proficient in literacy had declined by 40% from a decade ago.2
  • Another study found that more than 50% of students at four-year colleges and more than 75% at two-year colleges lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.3
  • Math literacy is a particular problem for these same students, according to the study. Almost 20% of students pursuing four-year degrees had only basic quantitative skills.

    International comparisons reveal that the United States is losing ground in student achievement and graduation. Among adults ages 25 to 34, the United States is tenth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the same age group, the United States ranks tenth in the share of young adults who hold a college degree.4 On both measures, the United States was first in the world as recently as 20 years ago. While other countries have responded to the knowledge economy by aggressively seeking out more opportunities for their citizens, the United States has stagnated in the educational attainment of its population.

    This report aims to provide state leaders with promising new ideas about how to create improvement while limiting costs. These ideas show that educational rationing—that is, the limiting of educational opportunity to certain subsections of the population—is not inevitable. Demonstrations of cost-effective policies and practices to expand educational opportunity can be found in many states, but they have rarely been implemented except as pilot projects. In our search for best practices, we did not find any state or institution working across all the areas we cite. Unfortunately, states that had previously experimented with comprehensive approaches to productivity abandoned them when their economies improved, or to address other priorities. The best practices we document, however, are not aimed solely at helping higher education through difficult economic times. Instead, these practices and policies can help expand access, increase institutional and student success, and contain costs. What is missing is their widespread use as strategies of change. Implementing these strategies will require strong state and institutional leadership, combined with targeted incentives for funding. Most important, the implementation requires an unrelenting commitment to high standards while improving productivity. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems believe that state leaders can improve learning while serving more students. But these leaders must act systematically and deliberately.

    1 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline If Education Doesn't Improve," Policy Alert (San Jose, CA: November 2006).

    2 National Center for Education Statistics, A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century, NCSL 2006-470 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

    3 American Institutes for Research, The Literacy of America's College Students: National Survey of America's College Students (Washington DC: January 2006).

    4 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2003 database.


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