Tracking high-value credentials as a unifying Post-Secondary Education and Training goal

Image: Baim Hanif on Unsplash

High youth unemployment in South Africa is heavily concentrated amongst unskilled youth. Over the past fifteen years the skills premium has widened, thus worsening inequality. Inequalities in the schooling system lead to different rates of academic eligibility as young people leave school. Yet, even for those who are academically eligible, the share of black South African graduates is relatively low. Increasing the supply of black graduates is fundamental to grow the skilled labour force, reduce unemployment and lead substantive transformation and inequality reduction.

As part of the State of the Nation Address in June 2019, President Ramaphosa noted that “The Medium-Term Strategic Framework […] had more than 1,100 indicators by which we were to measure progress in the implementation of the NDP” and that “It is time to make choices […] let us proclaim a bold and ambitious goal, a unifying purpose, to which we dedicate all our resources and energies.” This is the sentiment on which a Stronger South African Nation interactive website is based.

The Stronger Nation Interactive platform

Inspired by Barak Obama’s statement that “countries that out-educate us today, will out-compete us tomorrow”, the Lumina Foundation set a goal for the country: 60% of Americans between the ages of 25-64 were to hold degrees, certificates or other high-quality post-secondary credentials by 2025. While President Obama’s goal stemmed from a desire to return the U.S. to the position of world education leader, Lumina’s focus is on achieving the goal via an equitable path; higher and fairer educational achievement rates among people of races and ethnicities underserved by colleges and universities.

Using the annual American Community Survey, Lumina tracks the share of the population with high-quality post-school credentials in an easily accessible medium, namely the Stronger Nation interactive website.  This tool uses data visualization to provide a detailed picture of education attainment for all 50 US states, the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, and every county in each state along with breakdowns for credential attainment by race, ethnicity and age.

The website also has a new dynamic feature – the “goal-exploration tool” – which shows the number of citizens from various racial and ethnicity groups who need assistance if the goal is to be reached.  If you’re interested in Virginia, for example, you can click on that state and see its current goal, 70 percent by 2030. The data display shows clearly the number of Virginians who will need to attain a credential each year to reach that goal. The goal can also be changed — by percentage, by target year, or by age range — and a revised data array seen.

Who uses it and how is it going?

The Stronger Nation website is publicly available for anyone to view and use; from state governors to citizens.  The ease of public access holds states socially accountable and responsible for their progress.  Progress towards expanding post-secondary education attainment varies by region.  While some states are expected to reach their respective state goal ahead of schedule, others are lagging behind. For example, the governor of Tennessee has expressed that the state is on track to reach its goal two years ahead of its 2025 goal.  In comparison other states, such as Rhode Island, are not on track to achieve their goal by the target date.

What is Tennessee doing differently?  The state has taken a system-wide approach. In 2013, they launched the Drive to 55 initiative which aims to increase the percentage of Tennessee citizens with a post-secondary credential to 55% by 2025.  At the time of setting the goal in 2013, the state’s overall attainment rate was 33.8% and it has since risen to 42.7% (2017).  There have been collaborative efforts to launch various other programs over the years in support of the Drive to 55 initiative.  These programs include financial and student support as well as public and private sector engagement.

A Stronger South African Nation platform

The Kresge Foundation is funding Siyaphambili within SALDRU to create a hub for post-school research in South Africa. One of the projects is to develop the equivalent of a Stronger South African Nation, a user-friendly interface that can be used to track and monitor educational attainment.

What goal would we choose for South Africa?

Translation of policy objectives into indicators that are goal orientated is difficult and, as President Ramaphosa said, requires a choice. Within the PSET sector many indicators are tracked in reports, but there is no unified goal.

The key components and strength of the U.S. Stronger Nation goal is that it is a positive and well-defined population level indicator linked to labour market reality (based on estimates for the demand for skills) that can be disaggregated at the state level.

SALDRU researchers Nicola Branson and Samantha Culligan presented a conceptualisation of how a stronger nation platform could fit within the South Africa context at the recent Siyaphumelela conference. It is recognised that in South Africa the “Post-school education and training (PSET) is critical to South Africa’s future socio-economic development. It dramatically improves the employment prospects of young people and raises their incomes from such employment. In addition, broadening the skills base would be socially and economically transformative, and promote economic and employment growth.” The proportion of the population with any post-school qualification has remained remarkably stable over the last 30 years. This is true despite the rising share who now complete matric or some secondary education. “The aim [of the PSET sector] is to create a workforce that has the right skills and training to meet the needs of business and the broader economy.” Therefore, a post-secondary credential goal tracked at the national, provincial population group and age level would provide a unifying measure.  Moving beyond this conceptualisation, the next phase of the project will focus on determining the level for the goal and how best to define a ‘high value credential’.