Meeting the Obama Challenge: Bring All Higher Ed Assets to Bear

WASHINGTON, July 17 — Every kid knows you can only suck so much liquid through a straw. That simple lesson seems to be lost on adults, particularly when it comes to trying to do more with the same infrastructure. Higher education is a case in point.

President Obama is challenging the nation to regain its global leadership in the percentage of adults with college degrees. The plan he unveiled this week to invest in community colleges is a reminder that human capital is the iron ore of the knowledge age.

Yet, today, only one of every two working adults in America has a college credential, and as Baby Boomers retire, this situation will get worse because Boomers have a higher percentage of college degrees than their children.

Impediments in the existing higher education system exacerbate attempts to improve the situation, including:

  • A high school system in which only three of every four students graduate with their class;
  • A university system where only about three of every five students graduate with an associate’s degree in three years or a bachelor’s degree six years;
  • A volatile funding environment in which most states have either proposed or enacted major cuts to higher education subsidies in response to their current revenue shortfalls;
  • An academic environment in which 40 percent of students seek transfers from one school to another, but where many transfer of credit requests are unfairly rejected;       
  • A skills gap where high-demand career fields like nursing have waiting lists of months, even years to enter the educational programs.

The United States leads the world in higher education spending per student and higher education resources as a percentage of GDP. Disappointingly, though, we rank eleventh in terms of degree attainment rates by those 25-34 years of age, a key measure of the return on this investment. We have plummeted from first to tenth in one generation, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet like the frog in the slowly boiling water, we do not seem to realize the danger that these disturbing trends bring to our society and economy.

It is clear that our nation will need to bring all of our higher education assets to bear if we are to reverse these trends and reach the President’s goal. The capacities of public and private, nonprofit and proprietary institutions must be mobilized. This includes career colleges, which have become major contributors to national higher education attainment and now account for approximately 10 percent of all students in higher education (up from 2 percent in the mid-1990s), and last year conferred 16 percent of all associate degrees.

Wider public acceptance of shorter duration college programs will help America get ahead where it is falling behind. In Russia and Canada, the world leaders in college degree attainment by young people, two-year degrees stand at 34 and 26 percent respectively. Japan, next in line, finds 24 percent of young people earning two-year degrees. In the United States, only 9 percent of young people earn two-year degrees.

The bottom line? Higher education must reach more Americans with varying educational needs and aspirations. To be relevant to many of those who are currently not being served will require greater emphasis on subject matter immersion, more hands on application, more course scheduling flexibility, and more concentrated delivery than is often found in college programs. For many students it also means a clear path to employment. And for colleges and for our students a significant improvement in rates of program and degree completion will be required.

Yet expanding college access and educational attainment is not about improving our national rankings or winning some academic steeplechase with other countries.

"Countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow," the President told a joint session of Congress. We won’t get new results trying to drink from the same old straws. When it comes to higher education, it’s time to emphasize innovation in all sectors and to supplement traditional approaches with real, workable alternatives. (U.S. Politics Today)

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