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New Tool Assesses Impact of Education Policies on Degree Completion

closeup of graduation caps

Every state wants to boost the number of college graduates it has. Now, education and arts consultancy Ithaka S+R has produced a new forecasting tool to help people understand what impact changes in state education policy could have on degree attainment rates. The forecast looks out over 30 years.

In an accompanying report, "Raising the Bar: What States Need to Do to Hit Their Ambitious Higher Education Attainment Goals," the researchers explained that they began with a baseline, assuming that past trends in high school graduation rates, college-going rates and college graduation rates would continue. In that scenario, they stated, "we project attainment increases in all 50 states over the next decade, with 45 states forecast to increase attainment by at least five percentage points."

However, given those assumptions, only three states proved likely to hit or come very close to their attainment goals by their target years: Arizona, Massachusetts and Florida. Five states — Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oklahoma and Oregon — would miss their targets by 20 percentage points or more. And the country as a whole wouldn't achieve 60 percent attainment (which plots with most states' goals) until 2032; the U.S. attainment rate in 2018 was 48 percent.

As the report noted, to hit the targets set by states, adult learners would have to earn credentials at a faster clip than they ever have in the past; and states would also have to figure out new and more effective ways to close the "attainment gaps by race and other characteristics."

But given enough time, the report explained, almost all of the states with attainment goals would hit them — just years after they expected to do so.

The researchers proposed "high-level mechanisms" that can have the greatest impact on helping states narrow the gap that sits between their projected attainment rate and their goal:

  • In the area of "traditional pathway students," states can improve the high school graduation rate, increase the share of high school graduates who head to college and grow the college graduation rate.
  • Among adults, states could increase the numbers of people in their 30s and older who earn credentials.
  • Finally, states could address the racial and economic attainment holes that exist, especially in states with large populations of historically underrepresented students.

The tool that Ithaka S+R has developed in Microsoft Excel lets the user adjust variables to see what effect changing these kinds of drivers could have on outcomes. The idea is that policymakers can plan interventions and policies to see what effect they'll have on the results. "For example," the report stated, "if a state is implementing an 'adult promise' program, the user can adjust the growth of adult learning to reflect the anticipated impact on long-run attainment rates." Likewise, baseline data can be changed to reflect a decrease or increase in higher ed spending.

"Our hope is that this new tool and the accompanying report will be a useful resource for policymakers, policy advocates, and others interested in increasing educational attainment — helping them monitor progress, identify areas of opportunity for intervention, and estimate the effects of strategies as they pursue these important educational goals," wrote Martin Kurzweil, director of the organization's Educational Transformation Program, in a blog post about the project.

The tool and report are openly available on the Ithaka S+R website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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