by Josh Todd
It’s an anecdote as connected in the American mind to the concept of college as tweed jackets and musty library books. Picture a large college auditorium. Several hundred freshmen sit together hearing from the college president. “Look to your left. Now look to your right,” says the president. “At least one of the people sitting beside you won’t make it to graduation.”
The message this anecdote conveys is that college is hard. That college isn’t for everyone. And that that is just the way things are.
But what if we, as a nation, said that’s not how things have to be? And what if we tapped our great cities to begin an intentional effort to increase the number of students who not only make it to that auditorium but make it through to graduation?
This is the idea behind Talent Dividend, a challenge issued three years ago by CEO for Cities and the Kresge Foundation and incentivized with a $1 million prize for the city that makes the greatest strides in the number of degrees awarded per 1,000 citizens. Research indicates that if our nation increases its college graduation rate by just 1 percent, the economic dividend of that increase would be more than $1 billion.
This laudable goal – and, to be honest, the prospect of landing the big prize – led Oregon Campus Compact to partner with organizations across Portland to engage with this challenge. And three years later, we’re thrilled that Portland is among the top five cities in the 57-city field.
How did we get there? In reflecting on our progress to date, there are four keys to success.
Portland has a history of working across sectors and institutional boundaries. Our efforts prior to the Talent Dividend challenge included key executive leaders from higher education, K12, nonprofits, business, local governments, and communities of color sitting at the same table, looking at the same data, and setting shared indicators and outcomes. Our goal was singular- increase attainment rates, but our solutions were multifaceted based on the variety of stakeholders convened. We didn’t operate in a “business as usual” manner, because we weren’t tackling retention and graduation barriers in a traditional way. Even when there wasn’t a specific group focused on post-secondary improvement tasked within the collective impact effort, our local governments, schools, and business leaders were informed about progress being made and emboldened to focus all our systems on achieving success through deeper alignment and partnerships specifically in the areas of readiness for kindergarten, 9th grade transitions, and racial equity..
Executive Leadership Champions.
Our Governor, John Kitzhaber, and our local college presidents worked together and championed a focus on improving educational outcomes. Our local efforts prepared us to respond to state-wide efforts to improve graduation rates by creating regional education compacts. These compacts tied state funding for public colleges and universities to increasing educational outcomes. Private colleges and universities, even though not under the same state funding mandates, actively sought to be involved and find ways to help achieve the state’s goal of a 40-40-20 graduation mix (20 percent of adults terminating their education after high school; 40 percent going on to achieve an associate’s degree or other post-secondary certificate; and 40 percent achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher).
Targeted interventions at key, manageable points.
We didn’t attempt to swallow the cow in one bite. Smaller, targeted efforts combined the efforts of Portland Community College (PCC) and Portland State University. PCC now grants an associate’s degree to Portland State students who earn enough credits for an associate’s but have abandoned their goal of a bachelor’s degree. Not only does this helped boost regional attainment rates, it motivates students to continue on to complete that Portland State degree after having all but given up. Similarly, Warner Pacific University, an institution with a niche audience of adult learners, often heard that working adults had a hard time fitting classes into their schedule. To address this potential barrier to a degree, Warner Pacific began offering night programs and has seen an uptick in retention.
A focus on (disaggregated) data.
Long before Talent Dividend came along and our collective impact efforts began, a local consortium of culturally specific providers and leaders called the Coalition of Communities of Color worked with Portland State University to publish research showing that, across almost all domain indicators local communities of color were facing significant inequities in health, wealth, and education outcomes. This research, “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile” created a community-wide conversation about the need to disaggregate all data to really see how various subgroups were faring on key indicators and identify otherwise hidden issues. For example, aggregated data showed that 30.5 percent of students completed their post-secondary education within the standard time periods the federal government uses to assess completion—three years for an associate’s and six years for a bachelor’s. However, when disaggregated by race, the data show that only 12.1 percent of Latinos, 16.7 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 19.3 percent of Black/African Americans were able to achieve that same goal in that timeframe. This level of detail allowed the collaborators to brainstorm and enact targeted and meaningful engagement with current and prospective students to ensure progress toward degrees.
So where does this leave us? If we go back to that auditorium again, we still can’t guarantee that we’ll get the students on your left and right to graduation, but we’re making progress. And just as importantly, we are more aware than ever that if there are students of color or low-income students in that auditorium, they are more likely to face barriers to graduation.
And so our work must continue in collaboration with all of our partners. At Oregon Campus Compact, we plan to host a year-long Executive Learning Series on Equity. Administrators and student-level staff will explore how higher education systems can use a series of deliberate questions organized into a n inquiry-based tool to produce better decisions with deeper student and community support and buy-in to improve outcomes for students of color and first-generation students. We’ve moved beyond talking anecdotally about retaining students to now intervening, as appropriate, and mentoring holistically. This series and our continued work in Portland focuses not on a new program or initiative but asking different questions. Institutions move in the direction of the questions they ask, so we must ask, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. What can we do together to ensure you all make it to graduation?”
Joshua Todd is the executive director of Oregon Campus Compact, part of the national Campus Compact network of over 1,100 college and university presidents committed to using community-engaged learning as a tool to make a difference on issues that matter.
About the Talent Dividend
The Talent Dividend was a research project designed to calculate the monetary gains cities could achieve by increasing college attainment rates. Fifty-seven cities participated in the competition, which was a joint initiative of CEOs for Cities and Living Cities and funded primarily by the Kresge Foundation and Lumina Foundation. More information, including a list of participating cities, may be found athttp://talentdividendnetwork.com/.
About the Kresge Foundation
The Kresge Foundation is a $3 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America's cities through grantmaking and investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, community development and place-based efforts in Detroit. In 2013, the Board of Trustees approved 316 awards totaling $122 million; $128 million was paid out to grantees over the course of the year. In addition, Kresge’s Social Investment Practice made commitments totaling $16 million in 2013. Kresge’s Education Program promotes post-secondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. For more information and to coordinate media inquiries that are Kresge Foundation-specific, please contact W. Kim Heron at (313) 478-0197