We must equip our children with the skills demanded by the modern workplace, and in today’s economy that means some level of post-secondary education and training beyond a high school degree. Currently only 37% of Illinois adults over 25 have an associate’s degree or higher.
Illinois should be proud of many of its post-secondary institutions. The state boasts world-class universities, and some of our small colleges are national leaders. Yet too few of our institutions graduate students at an acceptable rate, and our achievement gaps are unacceptably high. in addition, the cost of securing a post-secondary degree has soared, and has done so faster in Illinois than in other states. That is likely to narrow access at a time when our economic competitiveness demands just the opposite.
The data in this report suggests that two factors — college and career readiness, and college affordability — place particular constraints on our post-secondary attainment. Both must be tackled with urgency.
College and Career Readiness
College and career readiness must be the goal for all students. increasingly, data suggests that the two standards are converging.10 Illinois should encourage all students to meet a simple, high standard and follow other states in linking high school graduation to both content and the mastery of college and career ready skills, including critical analysis and the ability to gather relevant information.
The good news is that Illinois has recently adopted the Common Core Standards.11 These are national standards that were developed to provide a clear and consistent framework in preparing our children for college and the workforce. The state should interpret and implement these standards at each grade level, and require that high school graduates have the skills needed to succeed at what comes next. The more tightly high schools and colleges coordinate their expectations, the more likely it is that students will graduate without the need for remedial coursework, and that they will ultimately complete a post-secondary degree. Illinois’ adoption of the Common Core Standards is a positive first step.
Just as we must prepare all students for college, Illinois must work to make post-secondary education more affordable. While Illinois previously led the nation in financial aid, we now rank near the bottom in this category. Even accounting for available financial aid, the bottom 40% of our population (as measured by income) must pay half of its household income to send a child to a public college. For community colleges, that figure is a third; for 4-year private institutions, it is more than 100%. We will not reach our aspirations for post-secondary attainment if college remains financially out of reach for so many Illinois students.
10. Common Core State Standards Initiative
11. Strong American Schools
Diploma to Nowhere (2000), online at http://tinyurl.com/sasdip.