‘Opportunity for All’ Should be a Reality — Not Just a Bumper Sticker

By Dakota Pawlicki for Medium | This week’s meeting of more than 200 business and education leaders from nearly 70 communities across the country was a great chance to hear what’s working as we work to grow the numbers of people with an education beyond high school.

One thing that stuck with me: Having a great local economy doesn’t guarantee economic and social mobility for everyone who needs it. Many people are left behind because they aren’t prepared.

“I love the saying, ‘Talent lives here,’” said Kim Hunter Reed, who will leave her position as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education in June for the top higher education post in Louisiana. Her point was that ability is everywhere, but access isn’t. “As we often say, ‘Talent has no ZIP code, but opportunity does.’”

She noted that Colorado’s economy is among the strongest in the nation and that it has one of the highest educational levels — yet educational outcomes among African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians are far worse than for whites.

“We are very proud of our economy, our very low unemployment rate, our blue skies, our great mountains, our collaborative spirit … Colorado is working — but it is not working for everyone,” she said.

Reed was among speakers on the first day of a meeting that included 17 cities designated as Talent Hubs — “Driving Change: Local Solutions to the National Attainment Challenge.” The meeting, sponsored by Lumina in partnership with the Kresge Foundation, featured breakout “toolkit” sessions for sharing ideas, including sessions on closing equity gaps, mapping pathways and non-scholarship financial supports, among others.

Colorado has a goal of ensuring that, by 2025, two-thirds of its residents have a credential beyond the high school diploma. Reed insisted the goal must apply to all, especially students of color, and that there’s no time to waste as good jobs increasingly demand knowledge and skills beyond what students acquire in high school.

“We see urgency in the work because we see our demographics changing,” she said. “Our Hispanic population is large and growing, and we want to make sure that those students who are least likely to finish high school, least likely to enroll in college, least likely to graduate, are indeed reaching their full and unlimited potential.”

Earlier assumptions about the amount of education people need after high school are outdated, she said.

“When we think about talent development in Colorado, we think about traditional-age students, nontraditional students, veterans, single moms. We think about foster youth, homeless youth, individuals who are incarcerated and formerly justice-involved as well,” she said.

“We have to be sure that we are developing all of our amazing talent in this state and in this country, so that everyone can reach their full potential and we can ensure that ‘opportunity for all’ is not just a great saying, but a great reality.”

Reed cited the work by the Denver Education Attainment Network, a partnership of education and business leaders, public officials, and other stakeholders that works to build and maintain pathways for students to earn credentials beyond high school, including certificates and industry certifications.

“A high school diploma is now the floor, not the ceiling, in this country,” Reed said. “There is honor in all pathways when it comes to receiving a credential of value. Aptitude and interest should determine where you start; and where you start is not where you will finish.”

Therese Ivancovich, executive director of the Denver Education Attainment Network (DEAN), led a panel of her network peers who amplified Reed’s comments. The panel included representatives from Denver Public Schools, city and county government, Community College of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, the state Department of Higher Education and Emily Griffith Technical College.

“Colorado has a very high college attainment rate, but when you dig into the data you see we are really leaving behind our low-income and minority students,” Ivancovich said afterward.

“We call it the ‘leaky college pipeline.’ We get them, maybe enroll them, but they don’t persist or complete, and then we have a large group of students who we’re not even touching or who aren’t getting into that pipeline.”

DEAN, founded in 2014, has brought together more than 30 partners to build a strong coalition focused on college enrollment, persistence, and completion in Denver. With workforce, nonprofits, higher-ed, K-12 representatives, and others, DEAN is built on a recipe for success that we’ve seen in our other Talent Hub cities.

“We know that no single organization or institution, government program, has been able to address the issues around social mobility and educational attainment,” Ivancovich said. “Our hypothesis is, if we do it together, build a strategy, have a vision, and use the technical assistance to push, we’ll see some really dramatic results for our students.”

Colorado’s low unemployment and a strong business climate, though clearly positive, can mask deeper problems, the DEAN director said.

“Everyone’s comfortable and complacent that we have this great economy, we’re importing all of this great talent. But as you scratch away at the surface, we are not growing our talent, and we really are leaving behind our low-income and minority students,” she said.

“Some people may not care about that, but they should care about it, because that’s an economic issue and a social issue that we are going to have to address in the future if we don’t start cultivating that pipeline for all students.”

Ivancovich and her DEAN colleagues are strong advocates of dual-enrollment, in which high school students can take courses for college credit. The Denver group wants to build those credits into structured pathways so students in high school are earning college credit that really links to their future paths. The group also is working on stackable certificates — such as those earned at the technical college — that can be applied toward associate and bachelor’s degree programs.

“We’re creating a system in which you can start with a certificate, and if you want to go on to a two- or four-year degree, you can do that with the least time to a degree and fewer credits to degree, because we’ve articulated what the transfer policies are,” she said.

Along with academic mapping, the Denver partners are looking at coordinated advising strategies to wrap their arms around students in a more comprehensive way. And they’re working to communicate the strategy and get buy-in at the grassroots level, so students and families believe that mapped pathways are right for them.

“No matter how well-intentioned our strategy is, unless we do the work of engaging families and community in this, it’s for naught,” Ivancovich said.

Those themes — working together in our communities, communicating well and sharing what works best — came up again and again in this convening.

And this is the right group for the work: Collectively, the people in this gathering represent the best of what our field has to offer, and they are working on solutions to many of our greatest challenges. It was a real pleasure to see them sharing what we’ve learned together.

SEE THE FULL STORY

Dakota Pawlicki is a strategy officer for Lumina Foundation, focusing on Lumina’s Talent Pathways work, which is mobilizing communities and postsecondary institutions to make major gains in attainment.