Closing the Gap


As a nation and a state, we are at a critical point in education. We have known for some time that we are preparing too few individuals for future jobs. In Arkansas, job projections in 2020 show that 59% of adults will need some post-secondary credential to be prepared for the workforce. In 2014, less than 40% of adult Arkansans possessed such credentials. Though progress is being made, the rate is much too slow to meet the projected need. Without a skilled workforce, jobs requiring those skills either do not materialize or they go to other states.

A recent report published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce highlights the critical importance of increasing the level of postsecondary attainment in our state. According to the report, virtually all jobs created in the United States during the recovery from the Great Recession have gone to individuals with some education beyond high school. Of 11.6 million new jobs created, 3.8 million went to graduate degree holders, 4.6 million to bachelor’s degree holders and 3.1 million to those holding an associate’s degree.

In early 2015, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, in collaboration with the colleges and universities in our state, went to work to quantify the need for increased post-secondary attainment and establish a plan for moving forward. That plan, Closing the Gap 2020, to address this skills gap issue and quicken the pace to having a workforce-ready populace in the future was adopted by the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board in October 2015 and supports Governor Hutchinson’s goal to meet employer workforce needs.

This month, the Coordinating Board will consider two important next steps in the implementation of Closing the Gap 2020. The first of these steps is a lengthy document developed by approximately 100 leaders in higher education across the state working in seven different work groups. The implementation plan identifies a range of proven strategies that can be adopted by the Department and by institutions to achieve the goals enumerated in the master plan to increase student success and raise attainment rates. If adopted, the plan will provide a road map for how we can move forward in increasing completion rates, closing equity gaps and improving affordability.

The second important step to be considered is a framework of an outcomes-based funding model for allocating the state’s investment in higher education. Colleges and universities in the state have been funded based on a needs-based model that is driven by enrollments and emphasizes access to higher education in its approach. The proposed model follows an outcomes-based approach, representing a fundamental shift in the way we think about funding by moving us from an enrollment focus to a completion focus and from focusing only on access to emphasizing both access and student success.

Outcomes-based funding can be used to align institutional funding with statewide priorities for higher education by encouraging programs and services focused on student success and incentivizing progress toward statewide goals. At the same time, such models encourage accountability to students and policymakers by focusing on the success of students through the achievement of their educational goals. Any new funding model must be built around a set of shared principles embraced by institutions, employing appropriate outcomes metrics, and aligned with goals and objectives for post-secondary attainment in our state and encouraging accountability to stakeholders.

If they are adopted, these two initiatives will formalize and operationalize the efforts necessary to reach the ambitious, but essential, goals established to increase the percentage of Arkansans holding a post-secondary credential. Many of these efforts can be seen already in the work that has occurred to change how we think about remediation, work to increase collaboration related to transfer students, adoption of analytics to better understand student success indicators, and others.

Personally, I am also moving forward at the end of July to take on a new opportunity at Henderson State University. In many ways, I feel that this is an opportunity to take these plans with me and become part of an institution that is already moving forward in these areas. I look forward to the opportunity to apply many of these important initiatives in a more tangible way. What a tremendous opportunity and honor it has been to serve the state of Arkansas as the Director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. My only hope that the work we have accomplished together with many other partners continue to have a positive impact on the future of our state.


Remediation and Student Course Placement


For many Arkansas post-secondary students, enrollment in remedial courses is a significant stumbling block to certificate or degree attainment. Remedial courses are required of any student who is not academically prepared in the disciplines of English, writing and math. In recent years, remediation rates for students who enroll in an Arkansas college or university immediately after high school have ranged from 35 to 40 percent. For those who delay enrollment even two years after completing high school, the remediation rate leaps to an astounding 75 percent or higher.

Enrollment in remedial courses can have devastating effects on students. Emotionally, it can be seen as a label indicating that the student lacks the ability to success in higher education. Financially, remediation can add a number of required courses to a student’s course of study, which accumulates additional tuition and fees. Academically, students placed into remedial courses are far less likely to succeed than other students. According to recent data published by Complete College America, a national nonprofit focused on increasing the number of US residents who hold a college credential, of those students who enter a community college enrolled in remedial courses only 9.5 percent complete a degree in three years or less.

Without question, remediation is an inhibitor to Arkansas’ goal of increasing the post-secondary attainment rate but what can be done to change the equation? One strategy has been recently approved by the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board and is being implemented over the next several months.

Previously, student placement into, or out of, remedial courses has been determined based on a single measure. Students who scored a 19 or better on the ACT, or an equivalent standardized exam, sections of English, reading or math are placed into credit bearing courses. Those who scored below a 19 on those exam sections are placed into remedial courses. There are two issues with this approach. First, standardized exams are not always the best method of determining student preparedness. Measures of a student’s previous academic work, such as a high school GPA or grades in specific courses, have proven to be more effective in some cases. Numerous research studies, with some dating back 15 to 20 years, have shown that a combination of standardized test and high school GPA is a better predictor of likely academic success. The second issue with the previous approach of using ACT cut-scores is that it treats all students above and below the score as being equally prepared. This approach assumes that a student who scores a 19 and a student who scores a 24 on the English portion of the exam are equally prepared for an English composition course. It also assumes that a student who scores a 14 needs the same level of assistance in a remedial course as a student who scores an 18.

The new placement policy recently approved by the AHECB and being implemented by colleges and universities attempts to address these shortcoming by applying a multiple measures approach. Rather than using only a standardized test score, the policy encourages the use of multiple sources of information to determine the likelihood of student success. Put simply, the policy requires institutions to use data on the success rates its current and past students to determine the likelihood that future students will be successful in English, math and other general education courses then adjust the level of assistance provided to students based on that likelihood of success. If it can be determined which student characteristics, such as standardized test scores, high school GPA, and a relatively new measure referred to generally as grit, those characteristics can be applied to predict the success rates of future students.

Rather than separating students into credit-bearing and remedial courses, the policy also encourages the adoption of a co-requisite approach to placing students into general education courses. This approach has seen great success at several Arkansas colleges and universities as well as in many other states. The best way to describe this approach is using an example of prerequisite courses. Students who want to enroll in advanced courses, such as Intermediate Accounting, must first enroll in, and successfully complete, a basic course, such as Principles of Accounting. This same approach is typically taken with remediation in that a remedial course must be successfully completed prior to enrollment in a general education course for credit. A co-requisite remediation approach enrolls the student in the general education course but adds differing levels of support based on the preparedness of students. Remediation occurs while the student is enrolled in, or co-requisite to, the credit bearing course. The result is fewer course enrollments, faster movement toward certificates and degrees and greater focus on providing students with the appropriate level of support they need to be successful.

While implementation of this new policy is just beginning, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education anticipates, based on results so far in Arkansas and other states, that it will be a success. It is expected to greatly reduce the number of remedial course enrollments, thereby reducing student tuition costs, but, more importantly, it is expected to increase the number of students who successfully complete a college credential. Success for the student, success for the institution and success for the state.

Value of Post-Secondary Credentials


Caps and gowns, motivating speakers, and pomp and circumstance can only mean one thing: it is commencement season. What better time to think about educational attainment? Each year, the Lumina Foundation, a national foundation focused on improving post-secondary attainment rates in the United States, publishes A Stronger Nation. This report provides a state-by-state glimpse at the progress made toward the foundation’s goal of a 60% attainment rate by 2025.  The most recent report, released this April, shows slow, but steady, progress toward this goal.

In Arkansas, we have a similar goal of reaching a level of 60% of adult residents with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. As with national data, slow progress is being made and some improvements are evident. When including only associate’s degrees or higher, 29.8% of Arkansans have achieved this level of education, a percentage that ranks 48th out of the 50 US states. Certainly not where we would like to be but this is an improvement over previous rankings of 49th in the nation.

The picture gets a little brighter when technical certificates are included. These are short-term credentials that prepare students for careers in construction trades, manufacturing, logistics, health care, and other fields. Arkansas compares quite well in the percentage of adults holding these credentials, with 9 percent, which ranks 4th nationally. Combining degrees and certificates produces a collective attainment rate of 38.8 percent according to the report, raising Arkansas’s ranking to 45th. Not cause for celebration but these results certainly show positive movement.

This discussion of attainment rates begs the question of why the Lumina Foundation and nearly every state have these goals of increasing post-secondary attainment rates. I have written previously about some of the personal and societal benefits that follow credential holders, such as lower poverty rates and improved social mobility, which are tremendously important. What about the financial benefits, though? We often see national data showing that bachelor’s degree holders earn as much as $1 million more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma. Does this earnings premium also occur in Arkansas? Is there a similar earnings premium for other credentials?

To answer these questions, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education staff turned to data from the most recent US census survey. Data from the 2014 American Community Survey was used to examine the average wages for Arkansas residents at each level of educational attainment from a GED through a doctorate or professional degree to determine the additional earnings at each level of education. Not surprisingly, average annual earnings increase for each level of education completed.

The largest jump in earnings is from master’s degree to professional degree, a 57 percent increase in average annual earnings, and the second largest is from associate’s degree to bachelor’s degree, an increase of 45.8 percent. On average, a bachelor’s degree holder in Arkansas earned just over $51,000 in 2014. Over a working lifetime, the average bachelor’s degree holder in our state will earn $795,000 more than an individual with a high school diploma. Not quite a million dollar payoff but a substantial difference.

Even when accounting for the cost of tuition paid, the time invested in education, and the potential interest cost for student loans, every credential from technical certificates through professional degrees has a positive financial return over a lifetime, according to this data. A broader question is how these earnings premiums translate into benefits for the state. The table below answers this question by applying the earnings premium, using the high school diploma as a baseline, for each level of education to the number of credentials awarded by public colleges and universities in the state.

Economic Value Table

The combined annual economic impact is $11.5 billion. Considering the state’s $773 million investment in public higher education for the 2014 fiscal year, this represents a return on investment to the state of 1487 percent! Equally as impressive, the net return, after subtracting the state investment, represents approximately 9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Given that colleges and universities award approximately the same number of credentials each year, these returns repeat with every graduating class. Congratulations, Class of 2016, you are worth over $11 billion!

These are returns any business person would accept and they present a compelling case for why increasing the number of certificate and degree holders in Arkansas is an important objective.


No Longer an Exclusive Club


At its inception, higher education in the United States was an exclusive club. Anyone other than rich, white, males need not apply. A college degree was as much a status symbol as it was a pathway to a rewarding career. As colleges and universities evolved through the 1800s and early 1900s, the demographics changed a bit but campuses continued to be reserved generally for the wealthy.

Fast forward to June 22, 1944, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law and opened up access to higher education to soldiers returning from World War II and millions of veterans to follow. Add to this the inception of the federal Pell Grant in 1972 (initially the Basic Education Opportunity Grant) and it is easy to see the impetus for transforming higher education from being reserved for the elite to being open to the masses. In 1965, total enrollment in higher education was approximately 5 million. Ten years later, at the end of the Vietnam War, enrollments had doubled to over 10 million. By 2009, total college and university enrollments had again doubled, surpassing the 20 million student mark.

Instead of a status symbol, a higher education credential, from technical certificate through graduate and professional degree, is now essential to gain access to employment paying a family-supporting wage. In fact, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce recently reported that 97% of good jobs, those paying a family-supporting wage, created since the end of the Great Recession went to college graduates.

As one would expect, as enrollments have swelled, student profiles have changed as well. Traditional is no longer traditional. Nationally, over 55% of post-secondary enrollments this past fall were over age 24 and almost 60% of all students attended part-time. These statistics have shifted even more dramatically at two-year colleges. As a result, the old model of serving students directly out of high school until they graduate two or four years later is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Through these changes, the gap in college-going rates of students from the lowest socioeconomic status families compared to the highest has narrowed significantly, meaning that far more students on campus today come from low income families. This also means that a large percentage of today’s students are the first in their families to attend a college or university.

These demographic changes present unique challenges. Not that low-income or first generation college students are less intelligent than their peers. They simply lack an understanding of higher education that others take for granted. Terms such as FAFSA, residency requirements, core requirements and accreditation are foreign to students who have no family members or friends to rely on for interpretation. Additionally, the financial challenges of a student from a low-income background are very real. Many skip purchasing textbooks because they are not affordable or they cannot afford to eat a meal while on campus. The combination of these challenges creates significant personal and financial barriers that prevent many students from successfully completing post-secondary credentials.

This is why programs like the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) are so important. CPI fills in the gaps for students who arrive on campus with the challenges described above and provides resources to remove the barriers. The program provides mentors, or coaches, to address personal struggles that CPI students are dealing with and to help them navigate the higher education maze. It also provides financial assistance for expenses such as textbooks and childcare that are not normally covered by state or federal financial aid. Remove barriers and students succeed.

Recently, a report entitled College Count$, a study of the CPI program, was released which shows that this approach works. Overwhelmingly. According to the study, CPI participants graduate at more than twice the rate of typical community college students across the nation. It works because it recognizes the issues that are likely to cause students not to succeed, it meets those students where they are, and allows students to focus more on what is most important: being a student.

Club membership is wide open through Arkansas CPI and similar efforts.

Accountability in Higher Education


When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by Congress in December, a great cheer was heard from K-12 educators throughout the country. ESSA is the latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaces No Child Left Behind. Educators’ joy over the passage of the act was derived primarily from the loosening of the federal grip on assessment of student achievement. In other words, schools have regained some control over how to assess whether students are improving and can rely less on standardized testing.

Contrast this with what is happening at the federal level related to higher education accountability. It seems attempts at regulating higher education are moving in the opposite direction of this new legislation for secondary education. The College Scorecard ( is a great example of this. This accountability tool focuses on three measures of performance for colleges and universities: average cost of attendance, graduation rate and median salary of graduates.

These are three important measures but the scorecard falls short for a number of reasons. Most importantly, this approach encourages colleges and universities to only enroll those students who are most likely to graduate on time, improving both cost of attendance and graduation rate, and to only offer those majors with the highest earnings potential. In addition to this overarching design flaw, the scorecard misses the mark in several areas.

First, it assumes that the average applies to everyone. Average can be a dangerous statistic without a better understanding of how much variation there is from the average. Median is a better reflection but is still not reflective of the variation in the population. Many colleges and universities in our state offer over 100 majors. To summarize the potential earnings of graduates from all of those degree programs into one number is simply not an accurate reflection.

The second issue with the scorecard is the use of graduation rates. Though this seems to be an important statistic, it actually measures results for a fraction of students. Graduation rate is based on an old assumption that all post-secondary students enroll full-time immediately after high school and continue until they complete a degree. In Arkansas, only 69% of students at public four-year institutions and 43.4% of public two-year students attend full-time. Those percentages have been declining each year for at least five years. Added to this, almost 30% of students are non-traditional, beginning or returning to college at age 25 or older. These students are absent from graduation rate calculations.

A third issue with using the scorecard as an accountability tool is its focus on earnings. Earnings are, of course, important. The cost of earning a post-secondary credential must be outweighed by the return from that credential. As an aside, every study I have ever read shows that any post-secondary credential increases the lifetime earnings of the credential holder with the gap widening for each credential earned. The issue with a focus on earnings is that it ignores the other individual and societal benefits that are gained along with the earnings potential. The list of benefits is lengthy but here are three:

  • Those with degrees have more job security and are less likely to be unemployed when there are economic downturns
  • Degree holders lead healthier lifestyles, including more exercise and less likelihood of smoking
  • Social mobility, the opportunity to move from lower socio-economic classes, is improved for those with post-secondary credentials

Colleges and universities should be held accountable for the results they achieve in exchange for the tuition paid by students and, in the case of public institutions, for state funding received. Accountability systems, though, must effectively measure the higher education outcomes that are important to students, to the state and to the nation. What does an effective accountability system look like, then? It begins with recognizing differences in students and in the institutions that enroll those students.

Currently, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education is working with representatives from a number of institutions to design an outcomes-based funding model to serve this accountability function in our state. Though the work is ongoing and will not be compete for several months, the working group has agreed on a number of principles that will guide development of the model. The principles are student-centered, focusing on access to quality learning and on completion for those who enroll, particularly students who are underserved and at-risk. In addition, the guiding principles encourage innovative and collaborative approaches to serving the students of our state while recognizing that colleges and universities each have unique missions in the students they serve and the roles they play.

This new funding model will be a critical component in aligning limited resources to meet student and state needs. Accountability can be achieved but we must take the right approach.

A Passport to Transfer


A passport is essential to international travelers because it allows individuals to move from country to country. This process only works, however, if one country is willing to certify the legitimacy of the passport holder. My passport was approved by the US Department of State a few years ago and has allowed me the opportunity to travel outside the country without issue. Borrowing from this same concept, the Interstate Passport Initiative was launched in several Western US states beginning in 2011. This multi-state effort has been expanded to include additional states and was recently joined by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and 15 Arkansas colleges and universities.

Today’s college students are more mobile than ever before. Recent national data show that over 37 percent of students who began college enrollment in 2008 had transferred at least once over a six year period and almost half of them transferred multiple times. This amounts to over 2.4 million transfers!

Each time a student transfers, he or she is at risk of losing ground because degree requirements differ from institution to institution. As one example, some institutions require all students to take College Algebra while others offer more flexibility in meeting math requirements depending on the student’s major. So, it is possible that students might need to take an additional course in math, or some other discipline, to meet different institutions’ requirements with each transfer.

This is where the Interstate Passport comes in. The Passport is built around learning outcomes rather than specific courses and is intended to reduce student transfer barriers and, thus, improve student completion rates. The goal of the initiative is to create a transferable credential, or passport, indicating that a student has successfully completed a set of core general education requirements.

In Arkansas, students are required to complete a state minimum core consisting of 35 hours credit hours in English, math, natural sciences, fine arts, humanities and social sciences. The idea behind the Passport is to identify what students are expected to have learned when those 35 credit hours are complete. If there is agreement across institutions on common learning outcomes, the specific courses a student completes along the way become less important as long as the courses include the right learning outcomes.

The end result? Students earn a general education passport that can be transferred from college to college and state to state. For institutions, rather than evaluating individual courses for transfer, the receiving institution simply accepts the Passport as verification of the student’s work, much as a foreign customs office accepts the validity of a US passport. For the 37 percent of students who will likely transfer at some point, there are fewer barriers that could derail progress toward a degree. Fewer barriers equals more college completers.

As important as this is effort will be to future students who transfer between Arkansas colleges and universities or into Arkansas from another state, the greater benefit of this effort may be realized later. If this concept is effective for transfer of general education courses, could institutions apply the same logic to courses beyond the core? For example, could students possibly earn passport “stamps” indicating the holder has completed learning outcomes for critical thinking, problem solving, or communication skills? Or more technical skills in business or health professions. Borrowing from my own undergraduate experience, perhaps I could have earned financial accounting, tax, accounting theory or other “stamps” as I moved through my four years of college. Each of these would have demonstrated to employers the specific skills I accumulated through my academic work.

This idea of stamps, or badges, to bundle student learning into recognized and portable chunks is not a new one. Badges have been awarded by businesses, colleges and universities to designate specific skill attainment for several years. In essence, this is how higher education has operated for decades. Students complete courses and courses accumulate until a degree is earned. Badges are simply an intermediate step along the way to indicate student progress or a way to recognize short-term skills accumulation.  This is an idea for the future, perhaps. For now, the Interstate Passport Initiative holds great promise for Arkansas students.

Too Many College Students

We have too many people in college. This is a sentiment I have recently heard repeated in several different venues. It is a well-intentioned thought; generally followed by a comment about more students being prepared to go to work without needing a degree. Here are two reasons why those ideas miss the mark.

First, we actually have too few Arkansas students who go on to college. Arkansas is currently 49th of the 50 states in post-secondary attainment, meaning that we have the second lowest percentage in the country of adults with an education beyond a high school diploma. Beyond this, only 21% of Arkansans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, a statistic which also places us among the lowest in the nation.

But we don’t need more degrees just for the sake of having a better educated population. Jobs are at stake. A recent national publication projected that 59% of Arkansans will need a post-secondary credential by 2020 to meet employer needs. This means more technical certificates are needed to train welders and truck drivers and machinists. More associate’s degrees are needed to prepare nurses and computer technologists and mechanical system technicians. More bachelor’s degrees are required for engineers, computer scientists and teachers.

Arkansas Department of Higher Education estimates indicate that as many as 263,000 adults in our state are under-educated based on these job projections. To close this gap between future employer needs and current college-going and college-completion results, we should encourage more high school graduates to earn a post-secondary credential and encourage more adults to enroll in college. It will take efforts on both fronts to change the educational attainment landscape in our state.

Which leads to the second issue with the well-intentioned but misplaced argument that too many Arkansans go to college. For many, there is a lack of understanding of what college means. We often think of college as four years of study leading to a bachelor’s degree. This is true but our colleges and universities prepare students for jobs through many other programs, some of them a semester or shorter in length. Here is a random sample of programs available to Arkansas students.

  • Certificate of Proficiency in Commercial Driver Training at Arkansas State University – Newport. A program that can be completed in 4 weeks.
  • Robotics Technology, a 9 credit hour Certificate of Proficiency that can be completed at University of Arkansas at Ft. Smith in one semester.
  • Technical Certificate in Database Applications at Rich Mountain Community College, which can be completed in two semesters.
  • Associate of Applied Science Degree in Industrial Control Systems, a two year degree program available through Arkansas Tech University – Ozark

Each of these is representative of the programs available throughout the state which can be completed in less than four-years and lead directly to available jobs. For some, these or similar programs are the best pathway to high-paying jobs. For others, a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree is the best option. The fact is, we need certificate holders, associate’s degree holders, bachelor’s degree holders and graduate degree holders.

Job creation is a key to future economic development and those new jobs will only occur if there is an educated and qualified workforce waiting for them. Arkansas’s future gets brighter with each post-secondary certificate or degree awarded.