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Good Policy, Good Practice II


Many issues other than higher education occupy the policy stage, but the nation’s ability to compete economically and maintain a vibrant democratic society rests increasingly on the shoulders of education and policy leaders. Never before have so many jobs required higher levels of education. As Anthony Carnevale points out in his recent report,1 colleges and universities represent only 35% of the entire postsecondary education and training system. But, higher education acts as an important gateway to other parts of the postsecondary learning system, such as employer-provided training and access to the most powerful, flexible workplace technology. As Carnevale notes, college graduates are almost twice as likely as high school graduates to receive formal training from their employers. In other words, education workplace training and workplace technology tend to go hand-in-hand to create an environment for continuing professional education that results in productivity and earnings. As state leaders struggle with the current economic environment, it would be short-sighted to ignore the relationship between higher education opportunity and long-term economic prosperity.

Few states can ignore the imperative to educate more of their population to higher levels of learning, not only to compete with other states, but to compete globally. Over the last 30 years, the average industrialized country has increased postsecondary attainment by about 75%—more than double that of the United States.2 As United States college completion rates remain stagnant, competition for talent from abroad increases. The educational aspirations of too many Americans, both young people and working-age adults, have been impeded by outdated educational delivery systems and the rising costs of higher education.

Public policies have also not provided the incentives and accountability mechanisms necessary to reach significantly higher levels of educational attainment. President Obama has set a goal for the United States to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. In order to meet this goal, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) estimates that 124,000 additional graduates per year are needed—a 4.2% annual increase.3 Some states have also established explicit goals to educate more citizens. However, more attention must be paid to these important issues by policymakers nationwide. No longer can the country be competitive with relatively flat access and success rates from its higher education system. Whether that education comes in the form of a certificate, an associate’s, or bachelor’s degree—evidence is clear that it is the best strategy for linking citizens to productive employment.

Many of the exemplary practices in this edition focus on the preparation of students for higher education. This is not a surprise, since the focus of state policy attention for the last 25 years has been on improving public schools. More recently states have also focused on college readiness in an effort to link high school preparation with successful college participation. And, only in the last few years have states begun to focus on working-age adult learners, since many states will not be able to meet workforce needs in the coming years by relying primarily upon young adults. This report identifies educational practices and policies to encourage both young adult and working-age adult enrollment and success in higher education.

According to Measuring Up, The National Report Card on Higher Education (2008), young Americans who graduate from high school are now more likely to have taken courses that prepare them for college and to enroll in college, compared with the earlier decade or in the 1990s. But far too many of them leave high school unprepared to succeed in college-level courses and need remedial classes when they enroll, even in open access institutions. Larger proportions than in the past fail to graduate from high school; some eventually receive alternative high school certification, principally the GED, but they do not enroll in college in large numbers after they do so.4

This report, like the earlier edition, runs counter to the assumption that higher education is locked into an “iron triangle.” The “iron triangle” views higher education as constrained by three competing values—access, quality, and cost—and a change to one of the three points of the triangle causes irreparable harm to one or both of the other points. In other words, it is not possible to increase access to higher education for more of our nation’s citizens without commensurate increases in cost per student or without a decline in quality. Or, it is not possible to improve quality without a decline in access or increases in cost per student. Or, alternatively, it is not possible to reduce cost per student without declines in both access and quality.5

The examples in this report refute the “iron triangle.” The good news is there is no shortage of good ideas to draw upon for improving access and quality, while maintaining per student costs. Examples are found at every type of institution: public, private, two-year, and four-year. The bad news is that most of them operate in isolation. They have not been implemented “to scale” or applied systematically by most institutions of higher education. A major reason for this is that states have not developed the policy structure needed to meet future needs. In general, states have been slow to provide the leadership or incentives that require needed changes; their focus has been overwhelmingly on public K—12 education.

This report is divided into two major sections: The first is related to moving students through the system more effectively. It addresses the need to increase both young and working-age adult educational attainment through a variety of strategies. It also highlights strategies related to educational productivity and administrative efficiencies within and between campuses. The second section addresses the kinds of policies and policy frameworks needed to implement and support the kinds of approaches described in the first section. Each section contains brief descriptions of approaches or policies that have actually been deployed by states or institutions. These are divided into a number of categories within each section, but a given practice or policy may appropriately be included under more than one category.

Part I: Good Practice

Strategy 1: Improving Preparation For Certificate And Degree Completion For Young And Working-Age Adults
A. Traditional Education Pipeline for Young People: Increasing Readiness for College-Level Work.
1. Increasing Rigor of High School Curriculum
2. College Readiness
3. Acceleration Programs
4. Dual Enrollment
B. Educational Pathways for Adult Student Re-entry into Higher Education.
1. Preparation for Adult Students
2. Re-entry and Completion of Adult Students
Strategy 2: Improving Educational Productivity
A. Learning Communities
B. The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree
C. Course Redesign
D. Online Learning
E. Competency-Based Education
F. “No Frills” College
G. Reducing Rework
H. Transfer Policies
Strategy 3: Administrative Efficiencies

1 Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help Wanted: Projections of Job and Education Requirements Through 2018. Georgetown University Press, Center on Education and the Workforce

2 Education at a Glance 2009, OECD Indicators. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris.

3 To see estimates for individual states see:

4 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (2008). Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education.

5 Immerwahr, J., Johnson, J., & Gasbarra, P. (2008). The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda.


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