The year was 2011. Oregon’s high school graduation rate was among the lowest in the country — only 68% of students in the Class of 2011 earned high school diplomas. The state’s policymakers responded by aiming for perfection.
Oregon lawmakers approved an ambitious, long-term graduation goal in 2011, and more than 300 policy makers and advocates — from then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to high school students — punctuated their commitment at a symposium in Corvallis later that year.
Their collective goal sounded like a code of some kind: 40-40-20.
Watch below: OPB has been following a group of students from the class of 2025 since they entered kindergarten. Now we join them for their freshman year of high school.
The basic translation was this: Oregon wanted, by 2025, to hit three targets: 40% of Oregonians would have four-year degrees, 40% would have two-year degrees or professional certificates, and 20% would at least get a high school diploma or equivalent. Add it all – 40 plus 40 plus 20 – and the goal was for a perfect 100% rate of students to at least finish high school successfully.
Supporters of the goal made an economic argument from the start — that adults with college degrees are less likely to face unemployment and have higher lifetime earnings than people with a high school diploma or less.
From the start, Oregon’s goal was aimed at the year 2025, which in 2011 sounded like a long way off. Students expected to graduate in 2025 hadn’t entered kindergarten yet. Those students are now sophomores in high school.
A lot has changed in the decade since Oregon first established these long-term goals. Kitzhaber, who signed 40-40-20 into law, resigned amid scandal in 2015, when the Class of 2025 was in third grade.
Later that same year, state lawmakers dismantled the expanded education infrastructure Kitzhaber championed to support the goals, called the Oregon Education Investment Board. Kitzhaber’s plan also mandated “achievement compacts” — agreements between school districts and the state focused on specific policies and practices. Those are no longer required.
In addition, the last decade has seen the state change standardized tests, establish a new grant program to invest in high schools, approve a new business tax for schools, and more recently, shelved certain graduation requirements, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s long-term goal, call it 40-40-20 or a 100% graduation rate, has quietly remained the target for schools and colleges.
“As long as Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal remains the law, it will remain the yardstick by which the [Higher Education Coordinating Commission] measures our education systems,” Ben Cannon, the commission’s executive director, said in an email. “For HECC, the 40-40-20 goal represents the ambitions of a state that believes education is the best route to a flourishing economy and strong communities. And it represents the belief that all young learners are capable and that the job of our schools and systems is to ensure they are able to realize their full potential.”
Slow progress, so far
The director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill, sees the value in having such a lofty graduation goal and argues there’s evidence that the target is helping the state’s schools.
“The significant rise in the high school graduation rate over the last few years reflects some of the success of the clear 40-40-20 goal in statute,” Gill said.
As Gill pointed out, Oregon’s four-year graduation rate has improved significantly over the last decade, from 68% in 2011 to 81% last year. In some ways, that percentage is the clearer barometer of how Oregon schools are doing. The 40-40-20 goals involve college enrollment and completion rates, and are measured using Census data involving a broader range of Oregonians than just recent graduates. But the two metrics are closely tied, since all of the pieces of 40-40-20 are based on students first being successful in the K-12 system.
When Kitzhaber spoke of the 40-40-20 goal, he called it Oregon’s “North Star” that the state would follow. A decade later, reaching the goal feels as far off as a light in the night sky.
First the somewhat good news: Oregon has made progress on the first goal, that 40% of Oregonians will have four-year degrees; the figure rose from 29.5% in 2010 to 35.1% in 2019. The state has consistently exceeded its goal for Oregonians with a high school diploma but no college, with roughly 40% from 2010 through 2019. However, the goal for that group is only 20%, with the idea that the vast majority of Oregonians would not stop at high school, but go on to higher education.
The bad news: Oregon has a lot of work to do when it comes to that middle 40% — the orange chunk in the chart above.
“In particular, far more Oregonians should be earning two-year degrees, apprenticeships, and short-term credentials during their early adulthood,” Cannon said. “And we need to do a much better job of ensuring that every level of the goal, from high school completion to graduate degrees, is achieved equitably.”
Creation of a separate adult goal shifted 40-40-20 focus onto current students
At the beginning, 40-40-20 was worded as a goal that applied to every adult in the state of Oregon, suggesting that not just the youngsters heading into kindergarten would be measured against this yardstick, but that adults would, too.
In 2018, legislators focused the goal on young people rising up through the education system, while creating a separate “Adult Attainment” goal for Oregonians ages 25 to 64 to earn 300,000 credentials by 2030. Those credentials don’t only mean college degrees, but other accreditations like shorter term job training and technical courses.
“We are not on track to make it there,” Cannon said.To hit that goal, Cannon said Oregonians would need to earn 30,000 credentials per year. In 2020-21, the state only saw 20,898 adult learners earning credentials.
“We are concerned that the effects of the pandemic will set back the effort to increase the number of adult learners at our trade schools, colleges and universities, and certainly that appears to be reflected in enrollment data from particularly community colleges over the last couple of years,” Cannon said.
While the state is falling short on some of its key numerical metrics, education department director Colt Gill notes that the state is making progress on boosting outcomes for student groups that have historically earned diplomas at lower rates.
“Since 2009 the percentage point difference between the overall graduation rate and the combined rate for underserved communities of students including Latino, Pacific Islander, Black, and Native American students has reduced by nearly 2/3rds; from a 14 percentage point gap to a 5 percentage point gap,” Gill said. “However, Oregon must continue to invest in equity-focused efforts to ensure every learner has a path into our 40-40-20 goal.”
Cannon notes that higher education outcomes show persistent gaps based on race.
“We need to redouble efforts to address these disparities,” Cannon said.
40-40-20: substantial gaps based on race
While the 40-40-20 goal remains far away for the state as a whole, those marks are even further off for Oregonians who are Black, Latino or Native American.
Black Oregonians, with 28.5% holding four-year degrees, are closer to the rate for white people in the state (35.7%), but Latino and Native American adults in Oregon are only half as likely as whites to have four-year degrees (16.2% and 15.9% respectively).
Black, Latino and Native American Oregonians are more likely to have less than a high school diploma compared to white adults in the state - with nearly one-third of Latinos lacking high school diplomas. However, Oregon school districts have shown success in recent years in helping Latino students earn diplomas at higher rates.
The most elusive goal of the three parts of 40-40-20 — the 40% goal for certificates or two-year degrees - shows less of a gap, because no group is particularly close: Oregon is at 20.9% for Indigenous Oregonians, 20.7% for Oregonians who are Black, 19.3% for white Oregonians and 15.4% for Oregonians of Latino descent.
One of the biggest questions facing the state in 2022, just three years from when it aimed to reach its goal, is how much of an effect the pandemic will have on schools and colleges. Oregon’s high school graduation rate slid backward in 2021, after hitting an all-time high in 2019.
Colleges and universities are struggling to rebuild enrollment after student numbers fell during the height of the pandemic. Some of the steepest drops were at the state’s community colleges, which focus on the kinds of two-year degrees and professional certificates that Oregonians are not earning at the rate called for in the state’s goals.
The other reality in fall 2022 is that Oregon is in the middle of heated races for governor and the state legislature. Attempts to solve the funding challenges and policy choices involved in improving the state’s education outcomes — whether that means recommitting to goals like 40-40-20 or reconsidering those lofty ambitions — will be up to the next set of elected leaders.
Meerah Powell contributed to this story.