Michael Meotti, the new director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, is in charge of a state agency that’s trying to dramatically increase the number of Washington students and adults who earn a college degree or credential.
Nearly five years ago, the Washington Legislature created a Cabinet-level state agency that aims to get more students to complete higher levels of education.
But the agency, the Washington Student Achievement Council, is still not well-known outside of Olympia.
What does the council hope to achieve?
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
For answers, we talked to Michael Meotti, recently chosen as the council’s new executive director. Meotti has worked on higher-education issues for most of his career, including serving as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Higher Education.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q:The goal of the Achievement Council is for all Washington adults ages 25-44 to have a high-school diploma, and for at least 70 percent to earn a postsecondary credential, by 2023. Is that goal too ambitious?
A: It’s a meaningful, aspirational goal. I don’t think there’s any desire to relent from trying to achieve it. I draw a comparison to the high-school movement, 100 years ago, when people started to push for every student to go to high school. We went from a world in which very few 16-year-olds were in formal schooling to, after World War II, when high school was pretty universal. The reality is, with each passing year, everybody is going to need something after high school if they want to join this much more complex labor market. Postsecondary education is not just for the elite academic performers — we’re now saying it’s necessary for everyone.
Q: The word “college” causes some confusion — I hear lots of readers say, well, not everyone needs to go to college. And the phrase “postsecondary credential” doesn’t resonate the same way.
A: I got exactly that reaction when I went around talking about this (in Connecticut). So I started using the phrase “something after high school.” I had conversations with people where they said, “Not everybody should go to college,” and I said, I agree with you, if you mean Yale, or the University of Connecticut. What I’m talking about is something after high school, and people would go, right away, “Yes, I agree with that.”
Q: Washington is very unlikely to reach its goal by 2023. What are the big issues that need to be resolved?
A: You really need to have pathways … that people in the community can see and follow. In order to achieve these big, breathtaking goals, you need this whole lifelong educational pathway. (For K-12 students), the path that takes you to higher education starts in middle school. (For adults), you have to show a pathway to get back into education and to be successful in a way that relates to life goals. If you have the pathways, if you remove the barriers — and one of the biggest barriers is cost and affordability — that’s the way you do it. A lot of times the players (those who can help adults finish their educations) don’t have the word “education” in their name. It’s those community-based partnerships, not just K-12 education or colleges. It has to include everyone who works with targeted disadvantaged populations — refugee adults, or young Latino women (as examples) — they may know those populations as well as anybody does.
Q: Are you planning to expand what you do into community partnerships?
A: We are about to embark very soon on a “returning adult initiative” … Colleges have a hard time recruiting returning adults. It’s very expensive (for the colleges). What if you could instead foster partnerships between the groups that are already tied to those adults (including employers and community-based organizations)?
Q: In a recent report, the Washington Roundtable found only 31 percent of recent high-school graduates in this state had earned a degree or credential six years after graduating. How do we compare to the rest of the country?
A: There are two different ways to look at this — the college attainment level for adults, and the completion rates for college students. I think Washington is high on both, nationally speaking. As a general rule, among traditional college freshmen, only about half will graduate … I think people should be concerned, and we need to do something, but people need the context that this has been the reality for some time. …
Q: In Washington, there’s a big difference in college attainment when you compare urban versus rural, and the east side of the state versus the west. Is that a concern?
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A: What really matters is what goes on in the place where we live and work. Yes, you will find regional differences, and sometimes those differences are causes for concern. The more important thing is, what is going on in your region, is it working for you and are things improving? I’d rather be focused on trying to get things to improve than trying to close the gap.
Q: Are there any techniques other states are trying to improve college attainment that Washington could also try?
A: I don’t know about the “Washington hasn’t tried yet” part. … You can’t crack this on the statewide level. But on the local level, between high schools and a community college — that’s the role of an agency like this: How do I prompt and enable those kinds of conversations?