President Barack Obama has called for the United States to produce more college graduates than any other nation by the year 2020. You can almost hear the skeptics questioning whether our educational system can meet the challenge.
But this goal is essential for the recovery of our struggling work force and battered economy. Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent, and working Americans need new skills to succeed in new and better jobs. Our companies — and our country — are competing in an unforgiving global economy in which increasing the competence of workers and the quality of products and services can mean the difference between recovery and continuing recession.
Though the goal is achievable, we as a nation won’t be able to meet it unless we think imaginatively and act innovatively. According to one study, to graduate a higher percentage of adults with college degrees by 2025 than our economic rivals, the United States will need to graduate an additional 63 million students. Under current conditions, according to experts, we will fall short by 16 million.
The nation’s institutions of higher education confront big challenges that undermine their ability to meet this goal. States are slashing funding for higher education, forcing many public colleges and universities to cut programs and staff. The endowments of private liberal-arts colleges are sinking along with the stock market, which pressures the schools to focus on recruiting students from higher-income families. Beset by the same budget cuts as four-year public institutions, community colleges are turning students away or creating multiyear waiting lists for specialized programs.
As a result, more people are looking to private-sector career colleges. Numbering almost 3,000, these colleges currently educate more than 2.75 million students — roughly 10 percent of the nation’s higher education students.
For the past 30 years, career-college enrollment has grown an average of 11 percent per year, compared with an average increase of less than 2 percent for colleges overall. From the mid-1990s through the middle of the past decade, the number of degrees — from associate degrees through doctorates — awarded by career colleges rose at a much faster rate than those granted by traditional institutions.
Career colleges are growing because they make higher learning accessible to nontraditional and underserved students. That’s a lot of potential students: Statistics show that only about 25 percent of the population has the money or time to attend a traditional four-year college.
Career colleges serve all Americans — not just the fortunate 25 percent. Just look at the demographics for career-college students: A majority are 25 or older; about half come from families with incomes in the lowest 25 percent; almost half are the first member of their family to go to college; and many have just completed military service. Tellingly, more than 75 percent of adult students work while they attend college.
Career colleges meet these students on their own terms. The schools offer schedules that suit busy lives and courses that meet the demands of an evolving economy, with its fast-changing job opportunities and ever-increasing requirements for new skills and credentials.
Agile and adaptable, career colleges offer innovative programs to prepare students for occupations in emerging fields and focus less on careers in decline. These colleges are in regular contact with local employers, so courses can offer real skills for the real world.
From returning veterans to laid-off workers to young people just starting out, career colleges help striving students and busy adults make the most of their talents and ambitions.
In this challenging economy, the nation needs every part of higher education to meet the president’s call to education and to restore America’s educational standing.
By Harris Miller
Harris Miller is president and CEO of the Career College Association, which represents more than 1,400 accredited, private, postsecondary schools, institutes, colleges and universities providing career-specific educational programs.