Oregon’s 40-40-20: From Goal to Action

George Pernsteiner

I have to drive pretty often these days and I love my GPS technology as much as anyone, but first things first: before pressing any buttons I need to know my destination. Where do I need to be?  Many may recognize the phrase: “If you don’t know where you’re going, that’s where you’ll end up. In Oregon, this saying resonates as we now have the momentum of a unified state goal for educational attainment that is driving the Oregon University System and all educational sectors with a focus on objectives, not barriers. Indeed, we know where we’re going.

Oregon’s landmark higher education goal, called the 40-40-20, is our North Star, as our Governor has termed it. In 2011, our legislature affirmed this once aspirational goal through the passage of Senate Bill 253. The goal is that by 2025 all adult Oregonians will hold a high school diploma or equivalent, 40% will have an associate’s degree or a meaningful postsecondary certificate, and 40% will hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Oregon’s educational attainment rates have been increasing, but the passage of the goal into law prompted a new drive for collective action and reform. The Oregon State Board of Higher Education is moving from vision to action on the 40-40-20 goal, laying out a work plan of the goal’s many moving parts that must be achieved to reach the attainment levels we need as a state.

The 40% of the attainment goal “owned” by four-year colleges and universities is more nuanced than a raw number. Embedded within is inclusion of underserved students – low income, rural, students of color – whom the educational systems have not served well in the past and whose college-going and completion rates generally fall below the average. Ethically and numerically we cannot meet the 40% goal with just the students who typically enter the college pipeline today, many of whom have better pre-college preparation, are from families with greater economic means, and do not need as much retention support in college as do underserved students. Oregon needs students from all backgrounds and at all education levels, PreK-20, to succeed and guarantee a better future for Oregonians and a stronger, more stable economy for our state.

Graduate education is also part of the 40%, although not focused on as much as the bachelor’s degrees in many of the policy discussions because the numbers are not as large. Graduate education will not be the major driver in helping us meet the 40%, but it will harness innovation and large economic returns. Companies can thrive in Oregon only if we have the highly skilled graduates and the innovation from research that keep and attract companies here, that supply highly paid jobs, and whose employees contribute to state revenues generated by increased income tax revenue. Economists tell us that having a rich pool of bachelor’s and advanced degree graduates, in combination with other ingredients such as livability to attract people, public infrastructure, entrepreneurialism, and quality of education, together lead to economic growth. This helps to support the principle that education is not just a private but also a public good. Just as government helps to spur economic growth by providing capital, infrastructure and other supports, it must also play a role in providing the human capital that advance state economies through state funding and other supports.

This is an important message that has spurred engagement in the 40-40-20 goal by the business community in Oregon. They have long supported greater funding for K-12 through higher education, and recognize the need to move towards practices that enable all Oregon children to succeed and be prepared for postsecondary education and the world of work. Besides the basic economic arguments, the other elements of a more highly educated population are well recognized by thought leaders: healthier citizens, higher volunteerism and voting, lower use of social safety nets, public assistance and prisons; and overall more engaged citizens who contribute thoughtfully to their communities, schools and work places. 

A major component of the 40-40-20 goal is Oregon’s new Achievement Compacts. While the Oregon University System has measured performance goals for decades, the compacts represent targets that link across the education continuum. For OUS these outcome measures cover completion (degrees in different categories), quality (graduate workforce success), and connections (success of dual credit and transfer students in OUS). Governor Kitzhaber noted at the System’s 40-40-20 symposium last year that the Achievement Compacts are not an abstraction but are key to Oregon’s success in learning, teaching and driving student success. The Compacts embody what the Governor has termed the Tight-Loose Concept: the state intends to be tight on the outcomes they expect as investors of public resources, but will give the institutions the flexibility, be loose, by giving them the latitude to achieve outcomes for all students regardless of ethnicity, home language, disability, or family income.

The 40-40-20 goal is not only a challenge for education in Oregon but it is also a promise. This is how we will succeed as a society and a state. It is how we will guarantee that all our children and future generations have, as a right, access to equitable high quality education regardless of economic status, family background, where they live in the state – urban or rural, small community or large – and what communities have nourished them. Having such an ambitious goal has given all of us in Oregon education a common and clear focus: it is about the students, their success, and their hopes…all 40-40-20 of them!

George Pernsteiner is Chancellor of the Oregon University System.

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