Colleges and universities across the country have prioritized broadening student access and boosting credential completion, with the assumption that doing so will lead to strong post-graduate outcomes. But mounting levels of student debt and high rates of underemployment are starting to show that’s not enough to ensure success.

The Strada Education Foundation released a data-heavy report today that aims to quantify and rate states’ performance in each of five areas: postsecondary affordability, quality career coaching, work-based learning experiences, alignment with employer interests, and transparency of outcome data.

By aggregating state data and conducting national surveys of recent college graduates, the State Opportunity Index report handcrafts and analyzes a set of metrics for each area. It then designates a rating for each, ranging from “foundational” to “leading,” with “developing” and “advanced” in between.

The comprehensive report finds that although many states are succeeding at clearly measuring their post-graduation outcomes and on improving affordability, collectively they are struggling to provide quality coaching, work-based learning, and alignment with employers. Not a single state was ranked as “leading” in any of the latter categories.

“While there’s a lot of good work happening across the country and every state has at least a few examples of progress to be proud of, every state also has substantial room for improvement,” said Strada’s CEO, Stephen Moret.

“There’s an urgent need for all of us to place more attention on helping people successfully launch their careers,” he added. “What this report really gets at are some of the major things that institutions and policy makers can do to help ensure that people have good outcomes in terms of jobs and economic mobility.”

Filing Major Data Gaps

Although many past reports have looked at individual variables such as affordability, return on investment or socioeconomic mobility, higher education officials say few have attempted such a comprehensive approach as this.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education used to publish a biennial report, Measuring Up, that rated states’ work on higher education. But it ceased in 2008, and even at the time it was publishing, critics said there were still major gaps in the data, particularly on student outcomes.

“Despite all the talk in Washington and state capitals about the need for better data and more robust accountability systems, we have made little progress,” an opinion author wrote for Inside Higher Ed more than 15 years ago. “Our efforts to make higher education more accessible and affordable will stall unless we change this.”

Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, said he hopes this Strada report will finally spur change.

“It may not be saying anything we didn’t already know,” he said. “It just brings it together in a more coherent way and puts it in a benchmarking model, compared to other states. So it gives you some sense that there are avenues to go down and explore how you might get better.”

“It doesn’t tell you what to do,” Meotti added. “But if you do believe that those things are important to increasing success, then it helps you know what states to look to for ideas.”

Survey Says

Nationwide, the Strada report finds, the strongest performance by states is in the category of “clear outcomes,” with about half of states ranking as leading or advanced. But even then, not a single state database included all 10 elements Strada outlines as necessary.

Affordability was the next strongest. There were two leading states—California and Washington—where students had to work fewer than 10 hours a week during the school year to cover their net cost of attendance. Another 15 ranked as advanced, requiring 10–20 hours a week. But nine states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota—remained unaffordable even at 30 hours.

The report also separately calculated average rates of positive return on investment, or the proportion of students who can pay off all debt within 10 years at a median salary. The lowest was Idaho at 55 percent, and the highest were New York, California and Delaware at 79 percent.

Data from the remaining three categories, however, demonstrated a lag in practice from coast-to-coast. In fact, research showed that not a single state could provide enough substantive data to quantify opportunities either for “quality coaching” or “work-based learning.” Instead, Strada conducted a national survey of recent graduates, and chose to hyper-focus on a select group of four states—California, Texas, Florida and New York.

National data showed that only 20 percent of bachelor’s degree students had access to full-capacity career coaching and only 26 percent had completed a paid internship. All of the individual states ranked as foundational or developing at best.

Leveraging Results

Chris Lowery, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education, said insights from Strada’s report are the best he’s seen from a report about higher education in years. Although he said he is “pleased” by Indiana’s results, which ranked it as advanced in clear outcomes and affordability, he was “not satisfied.”

He believes the report’s data will help him raise increased funds for existing programs, such as a recently announced career coaching grant that will institute career-pathway advising for students as early as the freshman year of high school.

As of now, the commission has $25 million to dispose of, but in the few weeks since the grant was announced, Lowery said he’s already received 41 applications seeking a total of three times the amount currently available.

“I am just so eager to continue to leverage this report … and to let both lawmakers and philanthropists know, we’re doing some of this, some of it’s in an early phase, some of it’s in a more mature phase, but we’ve got to do more of it,” he said. “For me, Strada’s report really helps to quantify and underscore the strategy we’ve adopted.”

Avoiding Barriers

Moret, from Strada, said the report’s results also show a need for more alignment between employers’ needs and states’ educational offerings. And he suggested that cross-agency data sharing and more collaboration between employers and universities is a must, particularly when it comes to the coordination of education and economic development.

“While they’re ostensibly linked … It’s very rare that you see states really say, ‘Here are the steps we’re going to take to better meet the needs for these particular high wage, high demand jobs that are going unfilled,’” he said.

Jaimie Francis, vice president of programs and policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, agreed. She said the fact that nearly 75 percent of states are only foundational or developing when it comes to employer alignment is “telling.”

“If we don’t have companies actively engaging and collaborating on the solutions, then we’re going to find ourselves experiencing the challenges that we have today for a long time to come,” she said.

Michael Brickman, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, believes the report draws attention to the things states do, whether “intentionally or unintentionally,” that make it more difficult to establish an ecosystem of opportunity. He also hopes it prompts some of those things to change.

For example, data show that among the few students who have had an internship, the likelihood of being underemployed was about 20 percentage points lower than for those who did not; there was an even larger difference—30 percentage points—between those with no internships and those with paid internships. And although Brickman agreed with Strada’s recommendation that states should explore policies that promote more on-the-job training, he worried regulations, such as requiring all internships be paid, could burden employers and dissuade them from expanding work-based learning opportunities.

“Remember, employers are there to provide a product or service. They, of course, need skilled workers to do that, but developing them is not their primary expertise,” he said.

Brickman added: “Hopefully, this will shine a light on opportunities for employers, education providers, workforce training programs to all work better together, so that they’re focused on opening doors to more people and hopefully making the pathways to jobs as affordable and accessible as possible.”


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