My last blog entry dealt with the cost of the educational achievement gap in the United States. But, we also have a college attainment gap when compared to other industrialized countries.
In one generation's time, the U.S. has gone from leading the world in the percentage of adults with college education to 12th in college attainment of young adults 25-34 years of age. Three countries have college attainment rates for young adults above 50%, Canada (55%), Japan (54%) and Korea (53%). Even more troubling is the fact that the U.S. is one of only two industrialized nations that has a higher college attainment rate for older adults (54-64) than for young adults (25-34). So, we're moving in the wrong direction.
President Obama has set the goal of leading the world in adults with college education. At his August 9th speech at U.T. Austin, he reiterated his goal of "producing 8 million more college graduates by 2020 so we can have a higher share of graduates than any other nation on earth," Secretary for Education Arne Duncan has called this effort "the North Star" for the Obama administration's education initiatives.
President Obama calls this push to regain international leadership in college attainment "the economic issue of our time." Why? He made that point very clear, "It's an economic issue when nearly eight in ten new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of the decade."
Several organizations have developed plans to help the United States reach this goal by 2025. The Lumina Foundation for Education has set the 'big goal' of 60 % of Americans to have 'high-quality degrees and credentials' by 2025. Most other national organizations have set 55% as their target. (View the Lumina Foundation's interactive map to see where your state stands here.)
Either way, it is quite a stretch. To reach the goal of 55% of Americans with a college degree, requires the U.S. to produce 64 million new college degrees, with at least 16 million degrees produced above current levels. So, how might it be done?
Several states have developed strategic plans to reduce the achievement gap and stretch goals for producing more college graduates. Two states have very specific plans for increasing college attainment. Kentucky has set a goal of 'doubling the numbers' of college graduates by 2020. Texas has developed a plan, Closing the Gaps 2015, with a goal of awarding 210,000 certificates and degrees from public universities by 2015.
What impact would raising college attainment levels have on the U.S. economy? According to CEOs for Cities, simply raising the college attainment rate in the 51 largest cities in America by 1% would yield a 'talent dividend' of $124 billion. Raising it 10% would produce $1.2 trillion!
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board projects that if the state successfully meets its plans, by 2030, it will reap increases in $489 billion in spending, $194 billion in gross state product, and $122 billion in personal income, as well as 1 million new jobs. Similarly, Kentucky projects that if it reaches it goals by 2020, it will increase personal income by $159 billion and and state tax revenue by $9 billion.
Most states have already developed plans to increase high school graduation rates and college completion rates. However, to reach a 55% college attainment rate by 2025 will also require strategies to attract working adults back to college to earn a degrees. According to a report by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning, 32 states cannot meet the targets by solely relying on the traditional college-age population. Moreover, even if every state reached 'best-case scenarios' in improving high school graduation rates and college completion rates, America would still be a little over 3 million short of the 64 million new degrees required to hit the 55% target.
According to projections by National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, by 2025, two states (Texas and California) would need to produce over a million new degree holders over and above current degree production levels. This is conceivable with a broad strategy that includes both traditional K-16 pathways (such as improved achievement levels, reduced dropout rates, rigorous curricula, improved college readiness, and improvements in college graduation rates) along with plans to addresses the educational needs of working adults.
In Texas, for example, only 29% of all Texas have an associates degree or higher. Over 2 million Texans lack a high school degree (21.6% of all adults). In 2000, more than one million Texans had never completed the 9th grade. Over 2.5 million Texans have some college, but no degree. Clearly, helping adults obtain high school and college degrees must be a part of plans for increasing the percentage of adults with college degrees.
If community colleges and four-year institutions can attract less than half of that 2.5 million to return to college and to earn a degree, that would produce 1 million more Texans with a college degree. Similarly, if Texas was to get 50% of adults with less than a 9th grade education to earn their GED, followed by a college certificate or associate of arts degree, that would yield another half million Texans with some college education.
Several organizations have made recommendations to help the United States increase college attainment. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are working towards a common framework for national standards for high school graduation reflecting college and career readiness. Not all states signed on (Alaska and Texas, for example, have not), but most are joining the effort.
The Educational Trust promotes efforts in K-12 to reduce the achievement gap between whites and nonwhites and has expanded those efforts in higher education. Recently, it has joined force with 24 public university systems to cut the college-going and graduation gaps for low-income and minority students in half by 2015, producing a report to show progress of major public universities.
The College Board has issued a "Completion Agenda," with ten recommendations: 1) provide voluntary preschool education, universally available to children from low-income families; 2) improve middle and high school college counseling; 3) implement the best research-based dropout prevention; 4) align the K-12 education system with international standards and college admission expectations; 5) improve teacher quality and focus on recruitment and retention; 6) clarify and simply the admission process; 7) provide more need-based grant aid, while simplifying financial aid processes; 8) keep college affordable; 9) dramatically increase completion rates; and, finally, 10) provide post-secondary opportunities as an essential element of adult education programs.
Meeting the President's call to regain national leadership in college attainment will not be easy. But, it is essential for the future of America. As President Obama stated, "Countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Those whom we educate today, may be the innovators of tomorrow. America must invest in its future.
All over the country, organizations and universities are engaged in discussions of how we can rise to the challenge. In my next blog post I will give examples of what we are doing at the University of Houston-Downtown.