Guest Opinion: State must act to keep up with education needs of changing society

  • Lazaro Lopez

    Lazaro Lopez

 
By Lazaro Lopez
Guest columnist

There is much interest in reforming higher education in Illinois, and for good reason: As the economy has improved and the job market tightened, a majority of college-bound students are leaving Illinois for neighboring states.

We know most of these students are going just across our borders. The most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show Illinois had the worst out-migration of graduates of any state except New Jersey.

This problem is significant, and it is real.

Other voices have articulated the impact of reductions in higher ed funding. We need to adequately invest in our public institutions so they can serve to their full potential as the engines of economic development in our state. In addition to reversing this trend, as the recent fiscal year 2019 budget deal begins to do, we must respond to the changing educational landscape.

One look at the current disrupters of the status quo and it becomes abundantly clear: What we believe education to look like, cradle to career, will change exponentially in the next decade. That recalibration will occur regardless of our actions, as we are faced with a proliferation of technology bearing free access to the nation's most regarded educational institutions; the continued questioning of the return on investment of a college education; the challenge of sustainable funding with an ever-increasing cost structure; the over-dependence on property taxes and the pressures from a cap on federal deductions; and the necessity to continue to increase postsecondary tuition while financial aid declines.

We must make the link between high school and Illinois higher education relevant, vivid and meaningful to our students.

This can be accomplished by giving high school students access to college coursework, increasing affordability and providing intensive career experiences.

Other states have adopted approaches I believe could contribute to the conversation we must tackle in Illinois. Some include youth apprenticeships in South Carolina beginning as soon as junior year of high school, a college campus located on the high school site in Ohio, and hundreds of students simultaneously earning a high school and four-year degree in Florida.

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We can put students on our Illinois campuses early and often; bring campuses to the high school; expand dual-credit partnerships; aggressively work on opportunities that deliver early college access, career certifications, internships and apprenticeships; close gaps in completion rates among at-risk student groups; and put our students on a clear postsecondary path that is accessible and affordable.

The implications for the Illinois economy are profound.

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, more than $1 billion in additional revenue could be generated if we achieve our goal of 60 percent of residents with a post-high school credential by 2025.

For Illinois to make progress, we must address the issue of persistence and completion, particularly among our minority student groups. Access to early college opportunities has shown to increase the likelihood of college graduation while lowering the overall cost to Illinois families.

What if we eliminated barriers so a typical Illinois high school student had the potential to complete his or her first semester or year of college by high school graduation? If it resulted in more students remaining on campus to completion in our own colleges and universities, our families, our students, and all our Illinois campuses would benefit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It can be done at scale.

One Indiana university has made access to dual credit courses a seamless and supportive process for 16,000 students in 170 high schools throughout four states. Our universities and community colleges can and should learn from this model and provide a competitive alternative.

Under the state's ESSA plan, our secondary schools are challenged to deliver a senior year of high school that smooths the transition to college and careers through early college access and industry credentialing. We must address the underlying reasons why Illinois high school districts are turning to out-of-state solutions.

One significant step to address this challenge was just taken by the state legislature in its dual-credit legislation. It centralizes the state's endorsement of qualified high school dual-credit instructors through our existing teacher licensing structure.

It is clear the landscape of education is in a state of change. If we are to successfully compete for our next generation of leaders, our energies will bear the greatest benefit by leading the transformation and reimagination of education that is coming our way -- and quickly.

Dr. Lazaro Lopez is associate superintendent of schools for Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

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