The Role and Responsibilities of States in Increasing Access, Quality, and Completion: Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter’s Remarks at the SHEEO Higher Education Policy Conference

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The Role and Responsibilities of States in Increasing Access, Quality, and Completion: Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter’s Remarks at the SHEEO Higher Education Policy Conference

August 11, 2010

I am pleased to be here today because we need your ideas and feedback to help us move our ambitious Access, Quality and Completion agenda forward. The leverage of the federal government to improve our higher education policies and practices depends on the depth and breadth of our relationship with you, our higher education institutions, the rest of state and local government and our policy and practitioner stakeholders. And the stakes can't get much higher than they are today.

As we can probably all agree, we are far from an American education system that is good enough at all levels — and we know this from the collection and presentation of data that we have about early, learning, K-12, higher education and adult education or what President Obama and Secretary Duncan call our "cradle to career" agenda.

Today, only about 40 percent of Americans hold a 2-year or 4-year degree. At one time, that proportion was high enough to make the United States the most educated country in the world. But the rate has remained stagnant and in other countries it has continued to climb.

On Monday, President Obama spoke at the University of Texas at Austin where he challenged every higher education leader to get a handle on spiraling costs. We'll never increase access to higher education if we don't figure out how to keep tuition affordable for people of all income levels. So we ask your help in addressing one of the biggest problems we have in keeping the opportunity for a college education open to the top 100% of Americans.

The President also remarked that in a single generation, we've fallen from first to twelfth in college graduation rates for young adults in the 25-34 year old age range. "That's unacceptable, but not irreversible," he said. "We need to retake the lead. If we're serious about making sure America's workers — and America itself — succeed in the 21st century, the single most important step we can take is to offer all our kids ...the best education the world has to offer."

We can see the problem beginning in high school or even earlier. Only three quarters of high school freshmen graduate with a diploma four years later. We lose 25 percent of our students between 9th grade and graduation — most of them in the first two years of high school. And as Secretary Duncan told the Urban League in July, "the status quo in public education is not nearly good enough -- not with a quarter of all kids and almost half of all minorities dropping out of high school."

Every day, more than seven thousand students become dropouts. That means 25% of high school students fail to graduate; that's 1.2 million students on the streets instead of in school. We lose a high school student every 22 seconds.

Research conducted in October 2005 by Cecilia Rouse, a professor of economics at Princeton University before she joined the Council of Economic Advisors, shows that each dropout, over his or her lifetime, costs the nation approximately $260,000. If high schools can't improve their graduation rates, 13 million students will drop out over the next decade. That would amount to a $3 trillion dollar loss to the nation — every year.

International tests in math and science show our students trail their peers in other countries. America's students are falling behind them in critical areas like engineering and science.

We rank twelfth in the world among developing countries, and no matter how we interpret the data, that places us well below where we want to be, well below where America needs to be in the 21st century.

Further, too many of our college students need remedial education and millions of jobs go unfilled each year for lack of a well-trained workforce. We are living in a knowledge economy, and other countries are recognizing this reality, but the U. S. is lagging behind and we must educate the public to recognize that in order to succeed in our new world, it will take higher and higher levels of skills and knowledge to compete and do well.

Finally, of students who do graduate high school and go to college, only 40 percent graduate within six years from the first institution they enroll in.

The math is complicated, but the story is simple:

Not enough of our students are graduating from high school;

Not enough of them are enrolling in college; and

Not enough of them are persisting in college through commencement.

Investing in education, investing in educational data and research, and investing in access, quality and completion is a worthy investment. Using the evidence we already have, with a clear focus on increasing access, improving quality and accelerating completion is the formula to help us meet the President's 2020 goal for our nation once again "to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world."

When Secretary Duncan spoke to SHEEO and the Council of Chief State School Officers last month, he emphasized the need for cradle-to-career data systems. He mentioned that continuous improvement will only happen if we have and use good data and research to increase student achievement.

"Longitudinal data," he said, "not only strengthens accountability and transparency, it empowers families to make informed choices."

To that I would add that any constructive conversation about meeting President Obama's 2020 goal must begin with examining the evidence as my colleagues on the agenda have done and are doing.

Your organization has made a strong commitment to collaboration and to building the bridge between K-12 and higher education. I applaud your work. You clearly understand that when it comes to recognizing the importance of all of us working together to meet the President's goal.

The report you just released — Strong Foundations — is a great start that lets us know what states are doing, which ones are making good progress and what areas they are addressing, such as linkages with K-12, integrating financial aid information or being able to provide transfer reports. It is absolutely essential that we look at the existing state postsecondary student-level data systems and learn more about how they have been used to increase student performance and success.

The value of meeting President Obama's 2020 goal with better-connected, more robust data systems has been recognized by others as well. In fact, compared with a decade ago, the emphasis on data to drive systemic improvement has soared. There are several noteworthy initiatives that are building the nation's momentum to drive us toward the 2020 goal.

This summer, the National Governors Association's set new recommendations on Common College Completion Metrics and is helping states set college- and career-ready goals. Their metrics point out that just a quarter of students enrolled in higher education are what people think of as traditional students who are financially dependent on their parents and enrolled in four-year, residential colleges. As I said at the SHEEO meeting last month, just 30 percent of the gap in degree attainment will be closed by traditional-age students.

Complete College America now has an Alliance of 23 states "ready to take bold actions to significantly increase the number of students who are successfully completing college and achieving degrees and credentials with value in the labor market and close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations." Their goal to establish common metrics will help us understand how students, colleges, and states are doing on college completion. They will help us identify specific challenges and opportunities for improvement, establish a fair baseline that can measure progress over time, and establish accountability for results.

We have to look at measures of achievement that are linked to student success — milestones like completing the freshman year, personalized learning portfolios to help students leverage their talents for success in college and in life. We have to know much more about remediation, which types of remediation accelerate achievement, how students persist in college, what credits they accumulate and what courses they complete, as well as how long it takes for them to graduate. If all our institutions and states pledge to make college completion a top priority, we will be able to incentivize a "college completion" culture that moves more students to attain their degrees and a society that will become far more globally competitive.

Another initiative worth mentioning is The Access 2 Success (A2S) initiative that is a project of the National Association of System Heads (NASH) and The Education Trust. Through this initiative, twenty-four public higher education systems have pledged to cut in half the college-going and graduation gaps for low-income and minority students by 2015. Their systems-transformation work focuses on using "leading indicator" data to track progress toward their goals.

And of course, Lumina Foundation's goal for 2025, is striving to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent. The Foundation believes that three critical outcomes must occur to meet their goal — that students are prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school; that higher education rates are improved significantly, and that higher education productivity is increased to expand capacity and serve more students. Lumina's goal demands an outcomes-based approach to the development of effective practices: an approach that will build a culture of evidence to inform the public and public policy toward reaching President Obama's 2020 goal.

We are long past the time when institutions can work in silos, independent of each other. It is essential that we be able to trace a student's progress from high school through college and the workforce. It's also essential that we figure out how to educate many of the 93 million Americans who have had little or no college, 75 million of whom are at basic or below basic levels of literacy.

If we can systematically collect and analyze better performance data on youth and adults, we will be helping to find out why and where students drop out and find ways to stop it. If we link K-12 data systems with early learning, postsecondary education, workforce agencies and employment outcomes, stakeholders will be able to access to information they need to improve student achievement.

If we can find better ways to support our students, we will increase their chances of success. By understanding each student as an individual, we better his or her chances for staying in school and contributing to our society. And that is why longitudinal data is so important. It is the basis for identifying the problem and addressing it.

We need our institutions to not only collect and report student data, but to make it far more available to education consumers and easier for them to use in their decision-making about college and careers. Deciding to enter postsecondary education and choosing which institution to attend are two of the most important choices anyone will make. It is vital that students and parents know the facts about what their decisions mean — how many students graduate on time; how many students from similar backgrounds are successful at their institution; how many graduates are employed after graduation; and how much it costs. Making this information transparent to Americans will be essential to our 2020 goal.

What We Are Doing at ED:

All across the Education Department, we are building on the commitment President Obama has made to help more students succeed, so as a nation we can educate our way to a better economy.

At UT Austin, he said, "Lifting graduation rates. Preparing our graduates to succeed in this economy. Making college affordable. That's how we'll put a higher education within reach for anyone who wants it. That's how we'll reach our goal of once again leading the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade. That's how we'll lead the global economy in this century, as we did in the last."

Our Recovery Act funds are going to support education reform efforts. The improved State Longitudinal Data Systems Grants will be able to track student progress beginning in pre-K and continuing through college and career.

At the heart of these longitudinal data systems are unique student identifiers that allow student data to be linked across time and with other data. States are starting to add individual teacher identifiers so they can track the quality of teaching and the quality of our colleges of education. These systems will help us understand changes in student achievement from year to year as well as examine the relationships between achievement, individual programs, majors, staffing, cost and a host of factors institutions and states can leverage to increase student success.

So far, our Institute for Education Sciences has awarded half a billion dollars to 41 states and the District of Columbia in grants that will help states, districts, schools, and teachers use data to improve student learning. The data systems will also facilitate research on ways to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps.

In Tennessee, one of the first states to receive a grant and also one of the first two states to win the Race to the Top competition, they have used the grant funds to accelerate their data collection plans and to design a system from square one that integrated all their information in one consolidated place. And with their recently passed Complete College Tennessee Act, they have the systems in place to fund higher education based on success and outcomes.

In Florida, the state used part of its IES grant to establish six data marts, which provide key stakeholders with interactive reports in areas such as finance, student learning, and teacher effectiveness. The first data mart to go live, the Teacher Pipeline, enabled education leaders to better understand the state's teacher workforce by collecting data on Florida high school graduates who pursue in-state college degrees in education, including how many of those students graduate with education degrees, how many go into the state's teaching workforce, who they teach, where they teach, and how long they stay in the school.

All our grantees have access to a variety of support resources. These resources are designed to help states with issues related to longitudinal data systems, including data governance, interoperability, data sharing, teacher—student linkages, and external evaluations and research. One of these I will mention is LDS Share, Longitudinal Data Systems that facilitate sharing and collaboration among education agencies and the education community. LDS Share allows them to share documents, policies, and other products developed in relation to the design, implementation, maintenance, and use of their data systems without undergoing any review. It's truly a collaborative information-sharing site.

President Obama's 2020 goal makes higher education the capstone of our heightened expectations for all students. Meeting the President's goal means we must raise our combined rate of two-year and four-year college graduates from 40% to 60%, and produce about eight million more undergraduates over the next decade, beyond the expected enrollment due to population growth.

This is more than a potential increase in enrollment. It is a fundamental shift in our expectations for our students and our systems.

In his speech on Monday, the President said that some people think his Administration should focus solely on the economy. But he also said that education is an economic issue.

"It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have. It's an economic issue when nearly eight in ten new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It's an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow," he said.

Our Blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is designed to strengthen an important part of the cradle-to-career pipeline. This plan for updating our main piece of K-12 legislation aims to bring significantly more, better-prepared students to the doors of higher education — students ready to excel without needing remediation. We've also seized the opportunity to rethink the federal role. Secretary Duncan wants to transform the Education Department's role, and make it an engine for state and local innovation.

Our Blueprint aims to promote a culture of college readiness and success by ensuring that students experience a challenging high school curriculum drawn from high academic standards and increased access to college-level, dual credit, and other accelerated courses in high-need schools, as well as other college-going strategies and models to help students succeed.

With its focus on improving teaching and learning and providing an excellent education to all of America's diverse learners, as well as offering greater flexibility, transparency and accountability for states, districts and schools, we are confident that our ESEA proposal is focused on the right priorities at the right time.

We're taking off the blinders that focused solely on moving another percentage of kids to proficiency in 4th grade reading or 8th grade math. We have our eyes on the real prize: to graduate students ready to succeed in college and in their careers.

Once students are ready for college, we need to address three areas that give students every opportunity to succeed in college. These three areas are essential to the future of higher education: access, quality, and completion.


  • When the President signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, he ensured that Pell Grants will be available for the next decade so that all Americans who want to attend college will be able to go. He tripled the amount available to students who want to go to college. Prior to this, if we look at the data, we see a large increase in the number of recipients and grants awarded between the 2008- 2009 award year and 2009-2010, and with the new law we can anticipate even more.

  • In 2008 -09, we awarded Pell grants to 6.3 million students, and in 2009-2010, we awarded Pell grants to 8.2 million students.

  • This large increase can be attributed to the economic downturn, causing additional students to apply for federal student aid in 2009- 10. Similarly, in some cases, these were continuing students who realized a new need to apply for aid; in other cases the economy resulted in students neither attending nor returning to school to continue their education.

  • Beginning in 2009-2010, schools could award Pell-eligible students up to 2 scheduled Pell Awards in an award year (known as Year-round Pell grants). This change resulted from the Higher Education Opportunity Act and is intended to help accelerate students' progress in an academic program.

The new 2010 law will:

  • Increase the maximum Pell l Grant award to $5,500 next year to almost $6,000 by 2017, by indexing the award to the Consumer Price Index for five years starting in 2013;

  • Provide $2.55 billion to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions;

  • Provide $2 billion over the next four years for community colleges to increase college completion and job placement for workers affected by or dislocated from employment due to the recession and to accomplish this in partnership with business, labor and higher education partners.

  • Entitle qualified nonprofit lenders to service direct loans and provide about $1.5 billion in additional funding for these efforts;

  • Invest $750 million dollars for states through the College Access Challenge Grant program to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college and manage their student loans; and

  • Cap a new borrower's loan payment at 10% of their net income, starting in 2014, and forgive any remaining debt after 20 years — or, 10 years if their career is in public service like teaching, public healthcare, the military or government.

  • We have also greatly simplified and enhanced the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. We've improved our use of technology, our links to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data, and the speed with which we can provide Pell Grant award and student loan eligibility estimates. The Department received 19.5 million FAFSA applications for the 2009-2010 award year, a nearly 20% increase from the 2008-2009 FAFSA cycle.


We also want to ensure that once students do enroll, they are met with high-quality educational programs and services. We are very concerned about how institutions can demonstrate quality to the public, to policy makers, to students and to the diverse stakeholders that benefit from higher education. We don't have a 21st century accreditation system, nor do we have a 21st century oversight system in our 50 states. We need your ideas and your help in partnering institutions and states with accrediting and oversight agencies and organizations to strengthen institutional evaluation, peer review, accreditation, oversight and compliance to rebuild public confidence in the quality of our institutions across the board.

As an example, when colleges or universities are on warning or probation as a result of accreditation, the public has the right to know. When year after year institutions undergo peer review and results aren't widely shared nor are lessons learned that enable other institutions to benefit, we aren't leveraging results to improve quality. When we can't talk plainly about learning outcomes and link them to competencies that enable students to succeed in college, in the workforce and/or in their lives for the betterment of society, we've missed an opportunity to explain or improve quality. And, truly, what does it mean for a team to evaluate an institution once in ten years? Our systems are outdated; they aren't transparent; and they aren't being widely used to support institutional quality and success.

This may sound harsh, but can't we do a better job for our students and our institutions?

And as I already mentioned, we want to increase quality and transparency, so students and families have the facts about college outcomes and costs when they are deciding which institution to choose and why.


College completion is among our greatest higher education challenges. Improving data, data systems and research will help us work together to make sure that in the future there is a better match between student aspirations and their performance. We need to do a far better job identifying students at risk and in curbing the college dropout rate. We need to do a far better job identifying the barriers to college completion and putting transformational plans in place to get those 8.2 million more students across the finish line.

When a student fails to graduate, it is often a twin failure shared by both the student and the institutions where they fell between the cracks. We can't control what every student does. But we can close more of those cracks, especially those we already know how to close.

We have already begun to have conversations with other federal agencies about how to link data systems, ones that track educational and employment outcomes, and create transparent systems for accessing information on community college and university performance, and we plan to do even more.

We also just announced the winners of our Investing in Innovation Fund that we call i3, which funds promising innovations by K-12 school districts and their higher education, nonprofit and/or business partners. A cross-section of 49 school districts, nonprofit education organizations and institutions of higher education were selected from among nearly 1,700 applicants for potential funding.

We selected these proposals based on recommendations from independent peer review panels. The grants fell into three categories: up to $50 million per "scale-up" grant for programs with a strong track record of success; up to $30 million per "validation" grant for growing programs with emerging evidence of success; and up to $5 million per "development" grant for promising ideas. Winning applicants will serve 42 states and 2 territories with more than half intending to serve students with disabilities and limited English proficient students and 37 percent intending to serve rural school districts.

I3 provided powerful incentives to districts, institutions of higher education and non-profits to develop and embed a culture of innovation and continuous improvement throughout our education system. We look forward to break-through results to help us improve access, quality and completion throughout the education pipeline with innovative models for transforming education for America's future.

Last summer, Bill Gates spoke to the National Council of State Legislators, and his words reflect the prevailing belief that we need to make achievement more measurable so we can improve student achievement and meet the President's 2020 goal. He said that to create better institutions and innovations, we need to replicate ones that are getting the best outcomes.

He said: "To do this, we need to measure what matters. Without measurement, there is no pressure for improvement."

So that is what I am asking of you today --- help us incentivize the creation or expansion of worthy systems of measurement and evaluation that lead to increased student achievement and success.

Reach out to and increase the K-12 and higher education completions, especially for your low-income and minority students. Encourage them to get the student aid that is available to them, and invest your state aid wisely, using the latest research for your distribution systems.

Help us improve the quality of data presentations, data and collection efforts and policy evaluations to demonstrate what works and use the results to systematically to drive educational improvement of our schools, colleges and universities.

Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the future of our country and, as the nation's academic leaders, we cannot look the other way.

We can graduate more students and get them into work that builds our nation's economy and into jobs that are competitive in the global economy. We need your ideas and your help. The future of our country depends upon what we do from this point forward.

Thank you for inviting me to share these remarks with you.