Leader of Governors Group Targets College Attainment Rates

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The new head of the National Governors Association challenged his colleagues Sunday to increase the ranks of residents in their states who complete some form of college.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin launched a project as incoming NGA chairman that he believes can improve the higher education degree attainment rate in each state by at least 4 percent annually.

An initiative centered on the state-based systems of public two- and four-year colleges and universities appeared the natural choice, Manchin told The Associated Press during an interview before the association’s weekend summer meeting in Boston.

“This is an area where we governors can have an impact,” Manchin said. “We pick their board members. We’re very much involved in their budgets. We’re talking to their presidents continuously. It’s an area where we’re already engaged.”

Manchin calls his initiative Complete to Compete. He cites estimates that nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the future will require some form of college education, and that the demands of the global economy will require the country to produce an additional 8.2 million college graduates.

“This is about us competing in the 21st century marketplace,” Manchin said. “It comes down to us continuing to be a global power 20, 30, 40 years from now.”

Figures from NGA suggest national college completion rates of 27 percent for community colleges and 55 percent for four-year schools. West Virginia’s overall higher education attainment rate is 24 percent, according to the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education.

Lumina helped fund the research by NGA’s Center for Best Practices to develop Complete to Compete. With a goal of improving the U.S. attainment rate to 60 percent by 2025, Lumina says the country has fallen behind such global competitors as Canada, Japan and France in this area.

With states still struggling to emerge from the recession, Manchin wants his initiative to prompt them to link their higher education funding to attainment rates.

“There should be a formula based on what you’re getting out the door, and not just what you’re getting in the door,” Manchin said. “I think it’s the best way to get the best results from the taxpayers’ investment, and for us to have the necessary educated workforce to compete globally.”

The initiative involves focusing on both traditional and adult students who have attended college but have fallen just short of completing a degree. Manchin said his father, who died in 1984, would have been in this category.

“My father went to college, and my father never finished college,” he said. “He would have liked to. But he started his family, he started his career and never had time to go back – or, he thought that he didn’t. How many people do we have in that situation?”

The NGA center is recommending an array of higher education measures for states to collect to identify these students and track their progress.

“My goal is to make sure that every governor is excited about this and has a template that they can use in their next state of the state address, and make this one of their key initiatives,” Manchin said.

At least half the states will have new governors in 2011, marking the largest turnover in NGA’s history. Manchin sees an opportunity to promote Compete to Complete among NGA’s newest members when the organization hosts a training summit for them in Colorado following the general election.

“We think it’s going to be a tremendous program, and it’s going to be pretty straightforward,” Manchin said. “For every governor who wants to be known as an education governor, and they sure should be, it’s going to give them something to hang their hat on and show accomplishments in a short time period.”

Manchin is pursuing Complete to Compete while also weighing a possible U.S. Senate bid. During the NGA summit, he told AP “it’s highly likely” he will run for the seat left vacant by the death of fellow Democrat Robert C. Byrd. Manchin is calling the Legislature into special session Thursday to clarify the state’s laws governing succession and election in such cases.

NGA spokeswoman Jodi Omear said the association will promote Manchin’s initiative throughout his yearlong term as chairman. “If for any reason he is no longer the chair of NGA, we would examine next steps then,” she said.