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Oregon needs better education outcomes. It’s a design challenge.

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Oregon’s Aspirations for Student Attainment Match the Stakes

40-40-20 Puts the Focus on Student Outcomes at Every Level

Oregon wants to get more learners to and through a postsecondary education, whether that’s represented by a certificate in a skilled occupation, an associate’s degree, a baccalaureate, or a graduate or professional degree. In 2011, toward that end, Oregon joined the federal government, several prominent philanthropies, and a growing number of states in calling for higher secondary and postsecondary attainment goals.

As the underpinning of Governor Kitzhaber’s 2011 education reform recommendations, the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 253, which frames what has come to be known as 40-40-20. By 2025, this goal aims for 40 percent of Oregonians to have a baccalaureate degree or higher, for 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or certificate in a skilled occupation, and for the remaining 20 percent without a postsecondary credential to have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent credential.

Apart from the specific numbers, 40-40-20 signals Oregon’s seriousness in preparing its young for the higher skill demands of 21st century work and life, and it signals the state’s commitment to a new system design focused on outcomes.

A Focus on Young Adults. With other factors largely beyond our control – such as existing degree attainment among adults and the inflow and outflow of educated residents – Oregon is focusing its attainment strategy on students yet to enter the education pipeline and on those now moving through. The table below reflects the attainment goals for adults between 25 and 34 years.

Equal Emphasis on the Middle 40. It’s important to note that this goal values all postsecondary attainment, not just baccalaureate degrees and above. Oregon employers have great need for people in the “middle 40” – those with associate degrees or technical certificates. Obtaining education for middle 40 jobs is a win-win because employers need the skilled workers and because middle 40 jobs pay well.

STEM, Too. Business and education advocacy groups are also promoting more granular attainment goals related to Oregon’s competitive needs for graduates skilled in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM). The Oregon STEM Employer Coalition, for example, called for doubling the current output of STEM postsecondary graduates and an equal increase in the number of fourth and eighth grade students proficient in STEM-related subjects. Governor Kitzhaber embraced STEM in his 2013-15 budget proposal. The Legislature approved creation of the STEM Investment Council to create a STEM investment strategy, and allocated $8 million in initial incentive funding.

We Can’t Hit These Targets Without Major Changes

The 40-40-20 attainment targets are formidable. As one can see in the 40-40-20 goal table above, the baccalaureate attainment goal for young adults represents more than a one-third output increase over the percentage of young adult Oregonians with baccalaureate degrees today.  Attaining the goals for associate degrees or certificates would be twice the attainment rate at this level among young adults today.  These weak attainment levels among young adults are occurring just as the most educated cohort in Oregon and U.S. history, the Baby Boom generation, edges into retirement.

An Oregon Business Council paper authored by a team of policy strategists wrote in 2011,

    Projecting current rates of enrollment and degree completion into the future, and holding all else equal, attainment rates will likely remain relatively flat between now and 2025. In short, native Oregonians with lower incomes and more educational needs than earlier generations could put downward pressure on attainment rates and offset the gains expected through the arrival of educated in-migrants. So, absent a significant change in policy and investment, Oregon is headed for 30-18-42 (and 10 percent dropouts) rather than 40-40-20.

40-40-20 signals Oregon’s seriousness in preparing its young for the higher skill demands of 21st century work and life, and it signals the state’s commitment to a new system design focused on outcomes.