The Value of Enrollment Targets

Most states don't have solid goals -- and that makes it harder to identify problems, report says.
February 17, 2006

States that seek to increase the success of their students might want to set a high bar regarding the number of students that attend and graduate from college. Trouble is, according to a new report, most states aren’t setting a bar at all.

The “By the Numbers” survey, conducted by Jobs for the Future, a Boston nonprofit group, found that only 23 states have numerical targets for increasing the number of students who go to college, retention rates, and graduation rates, and only 11 of those have a goal specifically for minority students. A paltry 10 states have outlined numerical goals for college entry, retention, and graduation. “The adage ‘what gets measured is what gets done’ is front and center here,” said Michael Collins, author of the report, and program director at Jobs for the Future.

As anyone who knows the seven habits of highly successful people remembers, nothing gets done without concrete goals. “Around $63 billion was spent on higher education by states last year,” Collins said. “I was wondering what kind of accountability is there. I was a bit disappointed.”

Collins surveyed state government Web sites and talked to people at state education agencies to find out what articulations of goals exist. He said that the states “really get” that education is critical to the state’s economic well-being, from increased wages and civic participation, to lower unemployment rates. “But when you looked at how they were going to get there, it really wasn’t evident,” he said of most states.

Most of the 10 states that have comprehensive goals are in the Midwest. Collins speculated that the dearth of comprehensive numerical goals in the Northeast exists because “public funding of higher ed is such a lower priority” in New England, where more students attend private institutions.

As numerical goal setting goes, Texas and Kentucky are at the top of the class, Collins said.

In 1999, Texas policy makers set the goal of increasing the number of college students in the state by 500,000, to around 1.5 million. The state set benchmarks for 2005 and 2010, and monitored progress. Texas also measured progress separately for black, white, and Hispanic students, which Collins said is especially important for states facing demographic shifts. According to the report, by 2003 Texas had already exceeded its 2005 goal increases for and white students, but was only about half way there for Hispanic students.

Once states set goals, Collins said, they shouldn’t keep their mouths shut about it. The Texas Legislature gave $5 million for the Education: Go Get It campaign, which brought information about the financial and academic requirements of college to high schools. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board then started a nonprofit foundation, College for Texans, to continue that effort. Collins added that “laymen’s reports” about progress toward goals should be made available so that interested citizens don’t have to page through phone-book-sized reports.

Kentucky, Collins said, set the bar especially high. With the goal of raising the state’s standard of living, according to the report, Kentucky set out to double the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher -- 800,000 of them by 2020. Collins noted that Kentucky is not keeping demographic data, but is targeting students beyond traditional college age. In 2000, the state undertook a $4.25 million print and broadcast media campaign to attract under-educated adults to college. Even the best goals, however, can be missed without money. Budget cuts eliminated funding for the program in 2003 and 2004.


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