During his inauguration in early January, Governor Mike DeWine spoke of his desire to use education to improve Ohio. “Education is the key to equality and the key to opportunity,” he said. “Everyone—everyone—deserves a chance to succeed, to get a good-paying job, to raise a family comfortably.”

Although DeWine’s inauguration signaled the start of new state leadership, his focus on increasing educational opportunities and improving outcomes isn’t new. Under former Governor John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation jointly acknowledged that Ohio was facing a “looming crisis” in educational attainment. Research from 2013 showed that 64 percent of Ohio jobs in 2020 would require post-secondary education. But only 43.2 percent of working-age adults had a post-secondary degree or certificate as of 2016. More worrisome, Ohio students weren’t earning degrees and certificates at a fast enough rate to close the gap. To meet the needs of employers, Ohio would need to produce approximately 1.3 million more adults with high quality post-secondary certificates. 

In response to these disheartening numbers, state leaders announced in 2016 that they would pursue “Ohio Attainment Goal 2025”—a statewide objective for 65 percent of Ohioans between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four to have a degree, certificate, or other post-secondary workforce credential of value in the workplace by 2025. A framing paper released by ODHE in 2017 identifies strategic priorities, including aligning credentials to in-demand jobs, decreasing racial gaps in attainment rates, and educating more adults.

ODHE and ODE are required to prepare an annual report that accounts for the state’s progress. The results in the most recent annual report are mixed. Ohio’s educational attainment rate was 44.1 percent in 2016, which is an impressive increase of 9.2 percentage points since 2008. But the state’s rate is still lower than the national average of 46.9 percent. Attainment has increased among all races, but large gaps still persist. And between 2011 and 2016, adult enrollment in post-secondary education—arguably the most important aspect of increasing overall attainment numbers in the short-run—declined by nearly one-third.

In short, Ohio’s got a lot of work to do if it hopes to meet its goal by 2025. As Governor DeWine and his team prepare their first budget proposal, they’d be wise to consider policies that could help improve Ohio’s post-secondary attainment numbers. Here’s a look at what’s working so far, and some places where the new administration could make an impact.  

Getting a head start on credentials

Ohio does a pretty good job of offering K–12 students a head start on post-secondary degrees and credentials. Advanced Placement (AP) has been present for decades, and the number of students participating has steadily increased each year; over 73,000 students participated in AP in 2018. State law guarantees that these students can receive college credit from state institutions as long as they earn a score of three or higher on an AP exam. Articulated credit options like Career-Technical Credit Transfer allow career and technical education (CTE) students to transfer credit from a variety of technical courses to state institutions. And College Credit Plus, the state’s dual-enrollment program, allows students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously. Now in its fourth year, the program has rapidly grown in size; over 71,000 students enrolled during 2017–18 compared to 54,000 in 2015–16. Maintaining both the volume and the quality of these and other programs will be vitally important for the administration going forward. 

Expanding and improving CTE

CTE is another area where DeWine’s team should focus on expanding what already exists. Initiatives like New Skills for Youth, which aims to expand and improve career pathways for high school students, show a lot of promise. So do recent efforts around work-based learning. But there’s more than enough room to grow, and the new federal CTE law, often referred to as Perkins V, is a great opportunity for the state to expand its offerings and invest in new and innovative approaches. DeWine’s administration should also make sure to keep the CTE promises it made during the campaign, including creating a Student Work Experience Tax Incentive for businesses and cutting the red tape that limits the use of Ohio Facilities Construction Commission funding for CTE schools.

Focusing on adult learners

When it comes to older adults, offering programs that focus on competency rather than seat time is crucial. Ohio’s Adult Diploma Program allows adults over the age of twenty-two to earn a high school diploma and an industry credential that’s aligned to an in-demand job without requiring a certain number of credits or seat hours. And in 2018, the Ohio Department of Higher Education announced a partnership with Western Governors University, an online, competency-based university that allows adults to earn affordable degrees in business, health and nursing, education, and information technology. Despite these offerings, Ohio is still struggling to reach adult learners. During DeWine’s campaign, he proposed establishing regional job-training partnerships and funding the completion of at least ten thousand in-demand industry certificates. Both these proposals could impact attainment numbers. But it will be vital for the governor’s office and the Office of Workforce Transformation, which will be led in part by Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, to continue focusing on how to reach and educate thousands more adults.

Making college degrees more affordable

In a 2016 project from the Institute for Research on Higher Education, Ohio was ranked forty-fifth out of fifty states in college affordability. In a post-secondary access and affordability agenda released in 2017, Philanthropy Ohio used this and other data sources to warn that “Ohio’s investment in higher education generally, and need-based aid specifically, is not keeping pace with our peer states. If this issue is not recognized immediately and addressed head on, Ohio will continue to face a significant talent gap.” If students can’t afford tuition, then the state’s attainment rate isn’t going to improve.

Fortunately, Ohio has been paying close attention to college affordability over the past few years. Tuition caps have proven successful. And according to ODHE’s annual attainment goal report, the state’s funding mechanism for higher education—the State Share of Instruction—incentivizes outcomes like student progress and completion instead of just enrollment. Capitalizing on these developments and considering additional recommendations should be instrumental parts of the governor’s plan to improve Ohio’s attainment rate.

Improving data gathering and reporting

When it comes to measuring attainment, good data are key. ODHE’s annual report contains some solid data, but most of them come from a single place—the Lumina Foundation’s A Stronger Nation 2018 report, which includes both national and Ohio-specific information from various sources. Although this data is good and useful, the state would benefit greatly from establishing its own data-tracking system. The governor could direct state agencies to work together to connect students’ K–12 and higher-education records with workforce data such as wages, career fields, or unemployment records. This would allow the state to gauge attainment rates and workforce outcomes. This information could then be used to shape state policy, identify areas for growth, and communicate transparently with taxpayers. For a more detailed look at what such a data system could look like, check out this policy proposal.


As is the case in the broader education sphere, there is no silver bullet for improving Ohio’s attainment rates. Meeting Attainment Goal 2025 is going to take a considerable amount of work and creativity from state agencies, employers, and local schools and programs. And just like with high school diplomas, the state needs to make sure that credentials aren’t meaningless pieces of paper, but instead represent actual mastery of knowledge and skills. Otherwise, meeting the attainment goal won’t mean anything. The governor’s office can play an instrumental role in these efforts by proposing sound state policy and incentivizing the right practices. The five areas outlined above would be great places to start.

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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