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Between Past Glories and Future Necessities - US Higher Education at the Crossroads

bridges vol. 28, December 2010 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Ana Starkel

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"We will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new
goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

(US President Barack Obama, 2009)

What has happened to the higher education system in the United States, that President Obama needed to formulate this goal on February 24, 2009? Little more than a generation ago, the United States had a higher education system that was largely envied and was ranked at the very top of college degree attainment worldwide. Today, the United States ranks ninth among young adults (25- to 34-year-olds) holding college degrees. While it took as little as one generation to flip the coin, the United States has fallen behind and the president now envisions a decade dedicated to making past glories and future necessities reality again.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} The US national goal stipulates that, by 2020, the United States should once again become the leader in educational attainment worldwide. Reaching that goal is seen as crucial; not only for individual "prosperity" but also for the nation's overall health, due to the strong link between education and economic well-being. Today, a college degree is considered by many as the entrance into a (more) secure labor market. Projections by the "Georgetown University Center" in their report "Help wanted - projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018" forecast that "by 2018, 63 percent of jobs openings will require workers with at least some college education." Higher education attainment has become imperative and a focus of the national political agenda.

  "... if America's colleges and universities want to retain the reputation of being the best in the world, they cannot rest on past glories. The challenge of producing the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not a question of national pride, it is an economic imperative."
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2010

Recent statistics from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Report "Education at a Glance 2010" show that "together, Japan and the United States have 48% of all tertiary educated people among OECD countries owing to the size of their population and overall high tertiary attainment level." The factors that gave Japan and the United States the past competitive advantage are indicated by the report: "[B]oth countries enjoyed high tertiary attainment levels before most other countries had started to expand their higher education systems... The high educational level of the workforce at an early date not only affects overall attainment levels, it also gave these countries a head start in many high-skill areas. The first-mover advantage is likely to have been particularly important for innovations and adaptations of new technologies."

It seems that the US has been slowly but surely losing this advantage for some time:  While other nations have rapidly expanded their higher education sectors over recent years, the United States hasn't seemed to keep up with those developments. The OECD report reveals that, in almost all countries, the young workforce generation (25- to 34-year-olds) has a "higher tertiary attainment level than the generation about to leave the labor market." This is not true for the United States, where "only a minimal difference between age cohorts" can be observed, according to the OECD report. This fact gives cause for concern as well as speculation as to who will fill the gap when the highly educated workforce retires - especially keeping in mind the rising proportion of jobs that require postsecondary education. Comparing educational attainment among the OECD members and partner countries, the United States

"The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow."
Barack Obama, 2010

now ties for ninth (at 42 percent) among the age cohort of 25- to 34-year-olds. The US generation of 55- to 64-year-olds ties for third; and if you look at the age cohort of 25- to 64-year-olds, the US can be found ranking fifth, at 41 percent. A report called "The College Completion Agenda 2010" published by the US College Board, a not-for-profit organization that represents more than 5,700 schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations, notes: "America is facing the reality that a highly educated but aging workforce is preparing to retire. As those workers retire, it is expected that the educational level of the younger generation of Americans will not approach their parents' level of education."

Along the way to meeting President Obama's ambitious goal, the United States is competing against nations that have had major economic growth, rapidly expanded their higher education sectors, and regard education as the key to success. South Korea, for example, has succeeded in becoming one of the world's best-educated workforces and fastest-growing economies in just a generation. They now rank fourth and are the new reality the US is competing against. As pointed out by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

"In practical terms, globalization means that US students will have to compete throughout their careers with their peers in South Korea, Canada, China, European countries, India, and other rapidly developing states. This race to boost educational attainment and economic competitiveness is a race that - to be brutally honest - the United States is losing. Just one generation ago, the United States had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Today, in eight other nations including South Korea, young adults are more likely to have college degrees than in the US."  

The current recession has given painful proof of the importance of a well-educated workforce, both on an individual and at the societal level. Due to the recession, the unemployment rate was augmented for all levels of education; it began to recover by early 2010, but only for graduates of four-year colleges, according to the College Board study "Education Pays". Also its comparison of the average lifetime earnings of people with bachelor's degrees and of high school graduates shows that a typical postsecondary degree holder can expect to earn about 66 percent more income. According to the same report, positive effects of higher education for society as a whole include better voting behavior, higher health benefits, increased volunteerism, better pension plans and health insurance, greater job satisfaction, more full-time employment, and - last but not least - because higher levels of education also go hand in hand with a higher income (depending, of course, on the degree earned), higher tax revenues for federal, state, and local governments.

In order to reach the president‘s laudable but ambitious goal, an additional 8 million graduates from US higher education institutions are needed over the next 10 years, which represents a 50 percent increase in current college attainment rates, as projections show. Several other initiatives support and pursue achievements similar to Obama‘s "back to the top" goal. For example, a report called "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education" published by the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based, private, independent foundation that has become one of the best-known higher-education philanthropies in the US, spending nearly $50 million annually on projects to improve college completion, wants to increase the proportion of Americans with a high-quality postsecondary degree or credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Lumina places the focus on completion, claiming that "more than 37 million Americans, or 22 percent of the US workforce, have attended college but have not completed a degree" and strongly focuses on what it calls "the new majority of learners in the 21st century: students of color, low-income, first-generation students, and adults with some college, but no degree."

What's on the administration‘s higher education agenda?
To achieve the overarching educational attainment goals formulated by the president, and to reverse the current negative trend in US higher education, an across-the-board "cradle-to-career agenda" has to be set up by the US administration. Some steps have already been taken in the areas of college affordability, upgrading community colleges, and higher college completion through the removal of barriers (Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act):

  • $2 billion for Community College Improvement: the administration hereby strongly focuses on community colleges. As Secretary Duncan stated, projections show that out of the total 8 million additional college graduates that are needed to achieve the goal, 5 million will come from community colleges. "All of higher education must contribute to reaching this goal. But community colleges will be the linchpin." Today's situation at community colleges is rather discouraging, with only one out of four students graduating or transferring to universities (http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/linchpin-new-mission-community-colleges).
  • Investing $2.25 billion in America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions.

Other incentives include early childhood education programs, K-12 (Race to the Top Initiative, Common Core State Standard Initiative, supporting teachers) as well as the passing of the Dream Act.

Education and opportunity go hand in hand. In order to equip the next generations with the tools needed for success, the focus has to be on access, high-quality degree completion, and strong teacher education. Moreover, a special focus must be put on groups that have historically not participated in higher education. Therefore, the distribution of degree attainment among all Americans is a key issue. For example, the lowest participation in higher education can be observed among Hispanic students who, at the same time, are the fastest-growing student group.

All in all, the challenge the US faces is a tough one and it definitely belongs at the top of the political agenda. It will require a lot of work and political will to reform the educational system to implement a strong and thorough "cradle-to-career" approach for all US citizens. It is somewhat ironic that the US education system has served as a leading example to many of the emerging countries that are now about to take the global lead - at the moment, it appears that the students have overmatched their mentor.


The author, Ana Starkel, has been with the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research since late 2007, where she has been focusing on the national implementation of the Bologna Process, and other matters relating to higher education.

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