shiremanCaption: Robert Shireman spoke at CSUF’s first President’s Symposium. Photo: Matt Gush Download

Needs for Higher Education

Shireman Discusses Goals for Degree Attainment, 2012-2025

The following is a transcript of a talk at the Feb. 22 CSUF President's Symposium, “Appraising the Future, Understanding Costs: Envisioning the New Normal in Higher Education,” given by Robert Shireman, chief consultant of California Competes and former deputy undersecretary of education in President Barack Obama's administration.


Shireman: I’m going to spend some time talking about numbers, quality, and I hope that maybe we can, together, hatch some conspiracies, some ways of getting some things done in a state that is notoriously bad, recently, at getting things done that need to get done. Yesterday, I saw an advertisement, I can't remember if it was in The New York Times or The Economist or something, but it was an advertisement for Ontario, Canada, luring employers to come locate there. Their primary argument was, “We have the highest percentage of adults with postsecondary degrees in the G7.”

Now, I'm not sure when Ontario joined the G7, but the point is they see, businesses, one thing to locate in places that have not just a lot of highly‑educated people, but a high concentration of highly educated people.

We've seen how the world has changed over the past few decades where in the places where you have the creativity, the industriousness, the entrepreneurship that comes from training and higher education, it creates good jobs. Those good jobs create strong communities. Those strong communities contribute to more education.

It is kind of a cycle, an upwards cycle of improvement, of the communities, of education, of families, of opportunity that reaches people from all backgrounds. Getting that critical mass is what President Obama’s goal was all about, returning the country to our place as number one in the world in terms of people with postsecondary credentials.

The Lumina Foundation has a specific goal of 60 percent, there's a very similar kind of approach. The analyses that we have done looking at where California is and where California needs to go in terms of postsecondary credentials, we are just under 40 percent right now of our adults, in California, with associates degrees and baccalaureate degrees.

When you look at other states around the country and where they seem to be headed, we would need to reach about 55 percent of our adult population with degrees in 2025 if we want to be among the top 10 states.

Now, we could aim even higher than that, we could aim for the Lumina goal of 60 percent, but that might be aiming too high for us. But let's say we were to try to aim for being a top 10, among the top 10 states in the country.

We talk about these degrees, it's bachelor's degrees, but also high‑quality other credentials that are of high quality, which tends to be the certificates of at least a year or so in healthcare, in manufacturing, welding and other kinds of job training that students get.

If you look at our current production levels and the advances that we've been making over the years and project them out between now and 2025, we will, just in our current roles, produce about 3.2 million additional credentials. So, that gets added to what we already have in our adult population after subtracting those of us who get beyond our work age.

If we want to be a top 10 state instead of producing 3.2 million degrees in credentials over the next dozen years or so, we need to produce 5.5 million credentials over the next dozen years or so. So, that is a gap of 2.3 million bachelor's degrees and certificates that are needed if we want to be among the top 10 states in the country.

Now, it sounds like a big number, but it's over a dozen or so years. There are three things that if we could actually move the needle on these items, we would pretty much achieve that two million or so additional degrees and credentials.

One is increasing our high school graduation rate, so the number of people who complete high school and are thereby ready, we hope, to go on to higher education. Second is to close the achievement gaps in college and in college entry that we see between our white population and our Latino and African American population.

Certainly one of the reasons that California is struggling to achieve that high level of education is that we have an expanding Latino population that has tended to have lower levels of education. When parents have lower levels of education, it's less likely that the children are going to get that high level of education. So we must address that achievement gap in terms of college entry as well as graduating from college by our underrepresented populations in our colleges and universities.

The third item has to do with our community colleges in California. We send more people to community colleges than any other state in the country. In fact, a quarter of all community college students in the nation are in California.

That's because we made the decision in the early '60s master plan to restrict entry into our four‑year colleges to that top third or so of our high school graduates. So more than any other state, the success levels at our community colleges are critical in determining the number of degrees that we produce and the proportion of our population that has the opportunity to earn a college degree and then succeeds in earning a college degree.

Unfortunately, our community colleges have just about the lowest degree production rate of any system in the country. There are a lot of discussions about why that is and maybe why we shouldn't worry about it as much as we do, but we have to worry about that issue if we are going to meet the numbers that we need over the next dozen years.

It is not just about transfer to CSU, UC, and to private colleges. A major role of the community colleges, almost equal to its transfer role, is the production of these shorter‑term, year-long credential programs to prepare for jobs in healthcare, manufacturing, and other critical, urgent, emerging needs in the economy.

In fact, we have had an inadequate focus, from a public policy standpoint, on that role of our community colleges. The other major player in that certificate realm, about equal to the community colleges, are for‑profit colleges. I saw an advertisement last night, sitting in my hotel room here, for ITT Technical Institute. So, those kind of programs at for‑profit colleges, which we need to make sure are high‑quality, and then also at our community colleges around the state.

Those are the numbers if we are going to aim to be a top 10 state in the country. Maybe I'm doing Dr. Currie's job for her, because she's supposed to rip me apart after this. I want to say what's wrong with what I just said.

This is a room, I think, mostly of people who are involved in higher education. We all know what we want it to mean. We want it to mean graduates have the critical thinking skills, the creativity and the industriousness needed to analyze, integrate information, and develop their thinking in ways that helps them to inspire their own continued lifelong learning.

About a year ago, the book Academically Adrift came out that sought to use research at four‑year colleges around the country to determine the extent to which students' experiences in college actually lead to improvements in critical thinking and analytical reasoning.

This study assessed critical thinking skills for each participant at three points — before they began college, after they had completed two years of college, and again after completing four years of college.

After two years, the Academically Adrift authors found that 45 percent of the students had made no gains in critical thinking skills. After four years, 36 percent had made no gains.

I have read every criticism I could find of "Academically Adrift" and I have found nothing that counters its underlying fundamental premise that critical thinking skills don't advance for these students at traditional four‑year colleges.

This is not about giving people a critical thinking course. We have been saying—us, those of us who are advocates for higher education, who love what higher education should be and can be—have been saying for decades that higher education is not just about preparing people for a job. It prepares them to be an active, engaged citizen with the kind of critical thinking skills that we need in our leaders as well as the kind of people who are our successful entrepreneurs and our great employees, who then can become the CEOs of their own company or the company where they work.

So, if we're not going to be using simple, narrow, vocational outcomes to assess to whether higher education is successfully doing its job, then we should take what higher education leaders have been saying for years, which is critical thinking skills, and see whether they advance. Not from a course in critical thinking, literature courses, economics courses, sociology courses, biology, chemistry, physics, are all about critical thinking, analytical skills that would show up in what students write and how they respond to questions.

So as far as I have been able to tell, the authors have subjected college students to a reasonably good test of critical thinking skills, and the results didn't give the answer we all wanted. It's not because the people who gave the test were trying to slam higher education, it's the way the numbers came out. We have to face it.

Now, I hear a lot of the public policy talk about delivery of education. But those of you in this room know that education, when it's done right, is not something that's delivered like via the paper airplane, it is something that is co‑produced by the student, faculty member, students, materials that are provided. It can involve technology ‑‑ I'm brushing up on my Spanish now using the Rosetta Stone, but that's something that it's not just talking at me, I'm talking back at the computer program and, you know, remembering how to pronounce all that Spanish.

So it can involve technology, but it does so as a co‑production involving all the participants. It means assigned reading that takes real concentration to really capture the ideas, assigned writing that involve integrating concepts and information and really producing something new in what is written, not just reciting back facts and figures. It means getting feedback, responding to that feedback, and rethinking the topic in whatever discipline this may be. This can happen in discussions in classrooms, but writing is often the way that students really advance.

What the authors of this study found was that students were not getting significant reading assignments, writing assignments or feedback from faculty—the very factors that essential to improving critical thinking skills

We don't have data on all colleges across California, for example, of advances in critical thinking skills, how they compare to each other, who's doing a good job, who's doing a bad job, but we do know that those tasks that I just described do take time. They involve extensive reading assignments outside of class, and writing and studying and other kinds of activities. There are data in a national data set that allow us to look at the number of hours that students report spending studying outside of class.

Now, anytime I bring up time, people start thinking oh, wait, students are working a lot and they can't, you know, they're just not able to put as much time towards their studies. It is certainly true that someone who has a job and is working, that affects their decisions about whether to enroll in school and how much, how many classes to take, but it remains an open question how that affects the amount of study, the amount of time they put into their schoolwork once they have enrolled in college.

A colleague of mine, actually a Sacramento State professor, looked at the national data on the relationship between work hours and time spent studying. It turns out that it's almost zero, it is very small.

Once students have enrolled in college, the time they spend studying varies in proportion to their relationship with the faculty, what is assigned to them, the kind of inspiration they get from the faculty to do the schoolwork, and also the kind of feedback that they get, in class discussions and on papers and tests.

So, we were able to look at time spent studying at different sectors in California higher education, and I looked on the low side. So, what proportion, if you take only the students enrolled full time, full‑time students at different California higher‑education sectors, and asked

What proportion of those full‑time students are skating by with very little time studying, so no more than five hours a week studying? That means they go to two or three hours of class, one hour of studying, weekdays only, no weekends, no afternoons, basically like going to high school in the morning, leaving at noon, and doing nothing more on school, full‑time students, what percentage at the different sectors?

Now, I thought, I might actually see a high proportion at places like the University of California, private colleges, Stanford, you know, all these smart students that can kind of fake it on the test and whip out a quick paper and kind of skate by, certainly I wouldn't see it at the community colleges where you've got the students who enter with enormous needs. The level they need to achieve to get themselves college‑ready and then achieving in college are greater than the other sectors.

But here's what we found. At the University of California and the private colleges, nonprofit private colleges, 10 or 11 percent of the students are in that category that I described ‑‑ not putting much time into school at all. Not that the others are putting a lot of time in, it's gone down over the past decades dramatically, but we are trying to determine how possible is it to just skate by at the colleges?

The California State University system, according to these national federal data is at 15 percent, community colleges are at 28 percent, and the for‑profit colleges, 22 percent.

These numbers should give all of us pause about what we are actually doing in higher education. I would hope that part of what a group like this can come together and begin to accomplish in terms of a possible movement going forward, is a reboot of what we expect in higher education and what we do in higher education, because I hear from a lot of you that this is getting worse.

It is getting worse because when we cut budgets and fail to make up for those budget cuts with enough added tuition or other sources of money, we end up adding additional students to classrooms, faculty take on larger teaching roles, and quietly but slowly and surely, faculty members decide ‑‑ I can't give the same kind of assignments that I was giving before. I have to give assignments that are easier to grade. And those easier‑to‑grade assignments end up being the kinds of assignments that they look like the students are studying the same kinds of topics, but they don't result in the same kind of learning.

So, I don't know exactly how a reboot like this can happen. This is one of the difficulties, and in such a huge state like California where there's not really much in the way of overarching leadership in higher education. But this feels to me like the issue where California has long been a leader in higher education. The people all over the country are focused on numbers of degrees, and I think we do need to focus on the opportunity and the production rates in our colleges to get people those degrees. But where I think California has the potential to differentiate itself from the rest of the country is to seriously take on this issue of quality in higher education, and what the degree actually means.

I'm going to be laying out some of these numbers tomorrow in some testimony before the California Student Aid Commission,  along with a number of other recommendations. Let me just tick through some of the other recommendations. I think the most important is really the one that I'm not sure how to implement, which is this reboot of academic expectations in this state.

The California Student Aid Commission administers the Cal Grant program, state scholarships, and has its fingers in all of the different kinds of colleges — for‑profit, non‑profit, community colleges, CSU, University of California — and so is in a position where it  can, at least theoretically, encourage activity that spans all of higher education.

I'm recommending that the Commission refuse to provide Pell Grant scholarships to any institution that does not make its accreditation documents public. Now, all of you pretty much do. We've been asking the public colleges in this state, and because of public records laws, you pretty much make those public, but private colleges, for‑profit colleges, very few of them make their accreditation documents public.

If we're going to be relying on accreditation as the determinant of whether an institution is doing a quality job or not, the public and lawmakers and the student aid commission deserve to have a window into what that process is all about.

Second, one of the most pernicious things that I've seen occur in higher education are these websites that take the grading data, the As and Bs and Cs that are provided in colleges and universities, and basically provide students with a roadmap in how to take Mickey Mouse classes that give easy As and then get your degree in that way.

Now the Cal Grants depend on grade point averages. One of the unintended negative consequences of using grade point averages for scholarships is that it can drive students to care too much whether they get an A or a B or a B or a C, instead of focusing on the challenge level of courses.

In fact, the Hope Scholarship program in Georgia led a lot of students to abandon math, science, and engineering programs because it meant that they would lose their full‑tuition scholarship, which depending on them maintaining a 3.0 grade point average.

So we could adjust grade point average requirements for these scholarships based on the easiness ratings that are given to some of these courses ‑‑ to basically give more credit if someone's taking the challenging course rather than taking just the easy courses.

We need to track employment and earnings outcomes for all programs at all colleges in the state. Higher education is not just about getting a job, but whether people are employable after they graduate from a program in higher education is a useful indicator of the quality of the training they receive.

The state already has the data on who is employed and how much they are earning, because of the small unemployment insurance tax that everybody pays. The state has that data. It would be easy for the state to match graduates of the programs at all types of colleges with the employment data, and use that information not in a formulaic way to drive higher education, but instead as information for policymakers and for people who are thinking about the different routes that they may take in higher education.

Try before you buy efforts have become common in some of the online education world, and certainly in our community colleges we need more opportunities for our students to test what it is that they are getting into. We must resist the temptation to demand less of them than is necessary for them to actually advance academically.

For a number of years, there's been this policy applied to for‑profit colleges. The intention was to check to see if anybody would buy the product if they didn't have a government voucher. This test has been applied at the national level, but it is rife with loopholes. This is something that we could improve upon at the state level, and could apply it beyond the for‑profit colleges if we want to.

Community college governance and finance are the issues that can potentially help us to address those huge needs that I described at the community colleges. The community college governance in California is dysfunctional. It does not allow the system to make the changes that are needed to improve programs, to get rid of bad programs, to provide the extra help that students need.

On the finance side, in the current situation, what happens by not allowing the community colleges to charge more tuition? Community college fees right now are about $800 a year for a full‑time student, about in there, and they're scheduled to go up to $1,200 a year for a full‑time student.

That means when the budget is cut by the state, the colleges don't have the slots to offer students. Those students are left either without a college education, without the support they need, or they are off running to the for‑profit college down the street and taking on enormous debts for what may be a good program, but would be cheaper to provide if it was provided at the community college with somewhat higher tuition levels.

It's never politically popular to increase tuition, but most people in California have no idea just how low community college tuition is in the state.

I expect you may hear a little bit later when Jeff Selingo is talking about badges and other ways of affirming student learning — and this is an area where I'm not exactly sure how we go about getting there, but some of that reading and writing and feedback that students get could be happening in other places. It could be happening in workplaces if employers took on more of an apprenticeship‑like role in helping their employees build critical thinking skills.

There are a lot of students, especially in night and weekend programs, who feel that they have to participate in those programs to get their degree, but they would much rather participate in other kinds of programs to earn that credential in the context of their actual work lives, rather than in an evening or weekend program that apart from scheduling isn't much different from the daytime classroom approach.

Last in an overarching way, somebody needs to be pressing on these issues, whether it's an entity in the governor's executive branch, whether it's the California Student Aid Commission, whether it's a new California post‑secondary education commission that actually has the analytical background and some authority to press on critical issues that affect higher education in the state.

We're just too big and diverse a state to go without that analytical capacity and leadership at the state level on higher education.

The outcomes from higher education that are most valuable to us as a society are not the ones that involve big money. But people do go to college hoping that they'll employed. And knowing whether they are or not is useful information, and we shouldn't deny ourselves useful information.

It does not mean that we should use it formulaically for making decisions. California higher education is renowned worldwide. It's slipping. The budget situation that we are facing has the potential to make it worse.

But as Dr. Ding-Jo Currie indicated in her response, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Those of us who care deeply about outcomes and opportunity in higher education need to make good use of this crisis, because it good for students and good for the state, and if we don't do it, somebody who does not understand what's great about higher education will be the one who makes use of this crisis.

Thank you very much.

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