Clearly defined, communicated, and understood, a clear state target for postsecondary degree and credential attainment can be a galvanizing and organizing device for key policies, strategies and actions by many stakeholders to help meet the target. Twenty-six states have set such a goal, ranging from a modest goal of 37% of citizens with postsecondary credentials in 2015 (Kentucky), to an ambitious 80% by 2025 (Oregon). Look at the attention garnered, and success of Governor Haslam of Tennessee with a widely heralded “Drive to 55” campaign, and its three clear and ambitious state strategies to achieve this goal, including free community college for all high school graduates.
The goal must also be properly communicated and understood. The agenda cannot be misconstrued with “college” seen exclusively as the pathway for all (meaning traditional four-year bachelor’s degree programs). There are many other forms of post-secondary degrees, credentials and certificates that are valued by employers, are good proxies for needed skills, and help individuals to get jobs, create jobs, and otherwise advance successfully in the economy – including (in Michigan) long-neglected, rigorous Career-Technical Education and Skilled Trades programs.
Nor should the goal discourage the pursuit of a college degree, but rather embrace and acknowledge the power and economic payoffs of these degrees. In fact, the long term economic benefits and likelihood of getting a job (and keeping a job through a recession) for those with an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or Ph.D. are real, high, and getting higher!
The right goal can unify our understanding and policy agenda around the fact that Michigan needs more citizens armed with, and reaping the economic benefits of, traditional degrees such as associate, bachelor’s, and professional degrees, and other valuable post-high school credentials, such as long-term occupational certificates, industry certifications, and apprenticeships. The right goal can also serve to unify our understanding that “career” and “college” -oriented programs work as one. Good CTE programs are clearly connected to postsecondary credential, degree, and certificate programs; and allow learners to add or “stack” new certifications towards advanced credentials and degrees. Good college programs are informed by the skills needed and credentials valued by employers in their particular discipline (i.e. health care, business, education). A clear goal can also help us put in place a higher education system that allows our people to efficiently and seamlessly build and move from one valuable degree, credential, or certificate, to the next.
A clear and compelling goal also guides choices among different policy responses and shapes priorities. Michigan must look for policy changes and incentives that are the highest yield, and cost-effective in terms of achieving the goal we set. Within the overall goal, disaggregating the goal and creating sub-goals defining needed increases in attainment by race, income, age and region, can also purposefully focus policy and strategy where it can make the biggest difference.
We want to set a target that is both ambitious and attainable – a goal that aligns with the needs of tomorrow’s labor market, and makes Michigan and its citizens more competitive with the most prosperous states. A goal that helps Michigan meet the challenge recently offered by Business Leaders for Michigan to become a “Top Ten State for educated and skilled talent.”