Years ago the primary focus of college opportunity advocacy groups was college access. This focus was guided by the belief that if college opportunity efforts managed to place students (especially underserved students) on a college campus, the work was done. Then, once it became clear how many enrolled students never finished, the focus rightly shifted to access and completion. Today the Holy Grail for higher education is equitable and high completion rates for all students.

Now another dimension is being added to the access and completion agenda: post-college-completion outcomes. More and more policymakers and students are asking the question, “Completion for what?”  Colleges are being asked to track and improve career outcomes for students in ways that address regional and state workforce needs.

In light of this new dimension of postsecondary education success, the Illinois General Assembly in May 2015 created the Higher Education Commission on the Future of the Workforce to develop recommendations for better aligning college credential production with current and future workforce needs within economic regions of the state. I was honored to chair this commission, which included leaders of higher education institutions, state legislators, economic development officials and representatives of business and industry.

The Commission released its final report on August 15. The Commission’s findings call for the following:

  • A coordinated plan to achieve Illinois’ goal of 60 percent of its adult population having a high-quality postsecondary credential or degree by 2025 (60 x 2025).
  • A publicly available statewide data system that will track and measure both employer demand and the supply of available workers with postsecondary credentials and degrees, using a regional focus.
  • Establishment of regional cross-sector approaches to engage both higher education and business and industry stakeholders as partners in economic development.
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I believe the Commission’s work puts Illinois in the forefront of efforts to better align the outcomes of our higher education system with the current and emerging needs of the workforce. As a matter of fact, activities are already underway to address the Commission’s recommendations.

For example, at the September 27 Illinois Board of Higher Education meeting at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, the focus was on those recommendations and effective strategies to implement them at the regional level. Four Illinois regions — Greater Egypt, Madison County, Northeastern Illinois, and Rockford — have been selected as sites for the initial launch of the Commission’s work. Each of these regions’ cross-sector collaborations — among education, business, political, and community-based organizations — will address the following items:

  • Identify key areas of workforce need, for example, health care, energy, advanced manufacturing.
  • Assess current college credential production to meet those needs.
  • Create cross-sector partnerships to increase capacity where needed and redesign of program offerings to make them more accessible to more students, such as adults with some college but no degree.

With funding from USA Funds®, IBHE is partnering with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to provide free technical assistance to these four regions.

These regional efforts will integrate the good work that has already been done as part of the development of the federally mandated Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plan and the Illinois Community College Board’s Workforce Education Strategic planning process. The IBHE and the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) have signed data-sharing agreements, a first in Illinois, to connect higher education and workforce data to provide a sustainable database to inform all of this work.

Thanks to the dedication of multiple state agencies and commissions, along with supportive nonprofits, Illinois is setting the stage to ensure a maximum ROI for the increases in college attainment achieved through our 60 x 2025 efforts.