Thursday, January 17, 2008

Chancellor Picks the Right Target

Ohio Board of Regents meetings are rarely the source of big announcements. Policy changes announced at its meetings tend to be incremental and seldom a surprise.

Yesterday’s meeting was different, and like many announcements during the Strickland administration, it was neither preordained nor foreshadowed. Before fewer than ten members of the public, Chancellor Eric Fingerhut demonstrated that the Strickland administration has targeted the fundamental question facing Ohio regarding higher education.

Last fall, the governor and chancellor announced the University System of Ohio and stated that they intended to develop a plan for it. Yesterday, during an update for the Board on his work on the plan for the University System, Fingerhut released a new version of the accountability system accountability measures. The surprise was the cover document: the “Educational Attainment Dashboard.”

The dashboard consists of four metrics. One compares educational attainment percentages for Ohioans aged 25-64 versus other states and the national average. The second compares that same group to other countries. The third set of metrics compares Ohioans age 25-34 to other states and the national average. The final set compares those younger Ohioans to the same other countries. Each of the four metrics further breaks these percentages down for associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate or professional degrees.

Every one of these proposed dashboard measures addresses, head-on, the fundamental challenge facing this state: increasing the number and percentage of people who have a college education and have attained a degree. We can educate them. We can import them. We can convince Ohioans who have left to return home. But regardless, we need to increase the percentage of people in this state who have the skills necessary to work in the modern economy. Success can only occur when we move these percentages higher, and the most direct means of doing so is through Ohio’s independent and public colleges.

The numbers on the chancellor’s dashboard will allow policymakers and the public to decide whether this state is moving in the right direction in addressing this fundamental challenge. People can question the states and countries selected for comparison (although at first blush, they appear to be on-target to me), but doing so simply quibbles with this important decision.

More than selecting these metrics, the chancellor deserves additional credit for adding the second pair of metrics for Ohioans aged 25-34. The relative strength of our nation educationally, compared to others, is primarily driven by the fact that “older” Americans—those over 35—have degrees in larger percentages than their like-aged counterparts in other countries. Even if the percentage of younger people remained constant for the next few years around the world, the U.S. would slip in relative terms to other countries because we are not educating enough young people and other countries are (see chart A3.1). (I recommend again the short video from a Maryland community college that I cited last month.)

Ohio is doing slightly better than other states on this front recently. Nevertheless, the problem for Ohio and the country as a whole is that a higher percentage of young people in other countries are obtaining college degrees than Ohioans and Americans are. That means new industries will arise in Calgary, not Canton. Manufacturing facilities will be sited in Taejon, not Toledo. Without college degrees, the average Ohioan will continue to see his or her relative income drop.

In the short term, one obvious solution rests with educating those who are older—people who have completed some college but have no degree, and people who are changing careers or have been laid off later in life. But in the long term, the state must educate young people in larger numbers, and Fingerhut’s selection of the second set of metrics addresses that challenge.

The chancellor’s selection of these metrics demonstrates that he and the administration know what the fundamental questions are. As simple and obvious as this change may seem in hindsight, its primacy as a central indicator was not preordained. Previously, the Board of Regents identified this as one among many issues of concern. Fingerhut has changed that with the creation of this dashboard. Its elevation as an analytic tool could well signal the start of a new era in Ohio higher education policymaking. I look forward to hearing more about his plans for the whole of Ohio’s system of independent and public colleges and universities.

—C. Todd Jones