An Interview with Dr. David Tandberg
“North Star” Attainment Goals
David Tandberg is the Vice President for Policy Research and Strategic Initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). Dr. Tandberg is a leading expert on state higher education policy. He currently leads SHEEO in its work to connect empirical research with state policy to improve higher education opportunities for students. Ithaka S+R graciously thanks Dr. Tandberg for sharing his thoughts regarding state “north star” attainment goals.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How imperative is it for states to create north star goals related to postsecondary attainment?
I think there is important work in states setting attainment goals. It can be hard for states’ higher education agencies to garner attention for higher education, and these goals bring attention to issues of the role higher education plays in a state’s economy and in people’s social wellbeing. The goals serve as an organizing point for developing coalitions around important issues related to higher education. Further, they can be used to vet different policy proposals and practices, and curate the higher education issues government will focus on and the policy proposals they will adopt. I largely see these attainment goals as a positive factor in state higher education efforts.
Given each state’s unique economic, social, and policy context, which policy areas should states prioritize when identifying a north star goal?
I think there is value in attainment goals as they prompt states to examine their education pipeline, as well as equity-based and geographic gaps in attainment. Those types of analyses are critical for understanding how to set and achieve the state’s goal. It is important for states to understand who’s not going to college because that’s where the growth in attainment will be made; it will be among underrepresented groups in postsecondary education. A secondary consideration revolves around the future of the workforce in a state and the types of degrees and credentials that will be demanded. A state should structure its goal around these needs. But the way we meet those workforce needs is by addressing the stubborn attainment gaps that persist among underrepresented groups in higher education. The forefront of the goal needs to be identifying these populations and looking to develop strategies to help them access and succeed in postsecondary education.
How should states think about the dual strategy of increasing attainment of traditionally-aged students and providing opportunities for adult learners to return to college for postsecondary credentials?
This is a critical issue and certainly not an either-or question; states must do both. States start with a general attainment goal, but then need to disaggregate into sub-goals, one of which will separate the immediate high school-to-college population from the adult population. The problems that face these groups may be similar. For example, there are affordability and access problems, and there’s a support and student services problem. But these problems often need to be addressed in different ways. The federal and state financial aid system has been built on the idea of younger learners and eligibility is often restricted based on this, which needs to be fixed. Adult learners have additional constraints on their time and mobility, so offering college in a way that is flexible is important. Adjusting our strategies and policy solutions to make them more accommodating of the lives of our adult learners is critical. However, this can’t be done at the expense of younger learners. As such, state leaders are learning how to address both populations simultaneously. We have some good examples in Indiana and Tennessee; these are states that have taken on the challenge of increasing educational attainment of older adult learners, some of whom are attending college for the first time while others are returning for additional skills and credentialing.
Which state stakeholders should be engaged in setting the attainment goal? Are some stakeholders more important than others in setting and reaching the goal?
There is the initial process as well as the sustainability question. Initially, you need lawmakers, and governors have a bully pulpit like no one else. My experience tells me that if a governor is not bought in, these statewide strategies tend to fizzle. So, having gubernatorial leadership and having the governor be willing to be out front and speak to it in public ways is critical. Obviously, the legislature will need to be involved as policies and funding become necessary. From a sustainability perspective, the initiative needs to be housed in a state higher education agency, but it needs to go beyond the agency to the business industry, K-12, and state-based advocacy groups. These are places that have an obvious interest, but can sustain the effort around the attainment goal beyond any one politician’s time in office. I see a critical point in time being when one governor leaves and another one comes in. If the effort around the attainment goal has been properly developed, it should be able to exist beyond the governor. At this stage, it should be developed enough and there should be enough attention on the goal that the next governor will want to pick it. He/she will likely want to put their own stamp on it, but will want to buy into it.
In your experience, what happens when a new governor does not champion the goal with the same energy as the former governor? Is it possible for other members of the coalition to move the attainment agenda forward?
I certainly don’t think the efforts will cease, although the goal may look different. We have seen state higher education executive officers advance important policies and a higher ed agenda in the absence of strong gubernatorial leadership on the issue. The key is to not have the governor resist or oppose. As long as he/she is not in the way, you can certainly continue.
The governors who will be in office in 2025 (the deadline for achieving most state attainment goals) will likely be elected fairly soon. How do you think that turnover and timing will impact the prioritization of these goals?
Some of it will depend on the likelihood of the state reaching the goal or how close they can get to it. It would be unfortunate if a state that is unlikely to reach a goal then abandons the whole effort around the goal. The goal’s worth is in the efforts meant to achieve the goal. The goal itself may just be a number, but the real value is in the efforts around the policy changes, the practices, and the funding; it is those things we want to exist beyond the life of the goal regardless if the goal is met. Hopefully, that will be the perspective that dominates as we near the year associated with the goal, and we find a way to continue the momentum forward.
How realistic are states’ attainment goals? In your view, how likely are they to meet them?
I think forward progress on increasing attainment is the ultimate goal. The state goals were set in different ways and at different times. The data indicates that some are more feasible than others, but it would be great to see some of them achieved followed by continued efforts to increase attainment going forward. In states where the goal may not be achieved, it would be great if any forward progress is continued and perhaps the state could recalibrate the goal and continue to develop strategies and implement them to increase attainment rates. Ultimately, it is about more students entering and succeeding in postsecondary education, and the goal is just one strategy towards that.
Which states stand out for doing a particularly good job setting and making progress towards their north star attainment goals?
Texas has really made the goal the centerpiece of their higher education strategy. They are not shy about the goal and use it as a public relations and communications tool, but also to help them develop policy strategies. Oregon and Rhode Island have also done a good job. Tennessee and Indiana, likewise, have maximized the utility of having an attainment goal as a way of driving a higher education agenda which is a very positive thing.