The Obama administration and other leading supporters of educational reform have made increased college completion a national priority. Policymakers, private-sector leaders and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations are seeking to help the nation attain this goal by spurring educational innovation, developing new models for learning and scaling up promising practices.
As this focus on college completion takes a central role in economic and political discourse, we must be sure to target our interventions for maximum effect. That means we must address how shifts in the nation's demographic composition and residential patterns affect decisions about where innovations will do the most good, and for whom. Most of us are aware that the United States is undergoing a demographic transformation, growing larger and more diverse, particularly within the Latino, Southeast Asian and immigrant communities. At the same time, our nation is becoming increasingly metropolitan, as a greater number of individuals are drawn to hubs that drive our knowledge-based economy.
A recent report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, Easy Come, EZ-GO: A Federal Role in Removing Jurisdictional Impediments to College Education, written for the Center for American Progress, examines how a regional-based approach—as opposed to a state-based approach—may help us meet our national college completion agenda. Expanding educational opportunities that have been difficult to access is critical, especially with the vast majority of the U.S. population living (83%) and working (85%) in cities. The 100 largest metro areas account for nearly three-quarters of national gross domestic product and are home to two-thirds of the total U.S. population and half of all members of racial and ethnic minority groups under the age of 18. Therefore metropolitan areas particularly warrant our attention, because they are central to our national economy and foreshadow the future face of higher education.
Easy Come, EZ-Go focuses on specific metropolitan areas—ones that cross state boundaries. America's 44 multistate metro areas, each of which includes counties from at least two states, account for nearly 68 million people and one-third of the nation's economic output. They range from large regions such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington to mid-size urban areas such as Louisville, Memphis and Portland, Ore. In these communities individuals carry out key aspects of their lives—work and personal—across state boundaries. Yet the movement of students within these multi-state spaces is severely restricted, in large part because of state-based education policies. Creating policies that focus on improving education in these metropolitan regions could substantially increase the number of people with college degrees.
Thus we should be reconsidering some aspects of the current state-based approach to higher education policymaking. At present there are layers of jurisdictional complexity and bureaucratic incongruity that may seem rational from a state perspective but that can impede college enrollment and completion for students who reside in multistate metropolitan areas.
For example, state-based tuition policies reward residency, not proximity; nonportable financial aid programs incentivize in-state college attendance but limit mobility. States may benefit from charging out-of-state students more and facilitating financial aid for state residents, but are these policies appropriate for students in multistate metro areas? Can we adjust our governing structures for education to remove the impediments for those many students? They are victims of a mismatch between our state education policies and our national needs. We've got to be aggressive about removing obstacles to education and training for people within these areas.
The traditional stat e responsibility for overseeing postsecondary education is workable in some cases, but it is no longer an appropriate one-size-fits-all model, given our national educational needs. With a more metropolitan-based regional lens, our nation will have a better chance of meeting the college completion challenge. After all, demographic shifts make it impossible to reach and sustain the national completion goal by squeezing more college graduates out of groups and areas that already enjoy high levels of attainment; we need increased attainment in all places and among all people.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.