Report Aims to Boost Number of U.S. College Grads

Education leaders and federal and state policymakers will gather today in Washington to discuss how the USA can reclaim its position as a world leader in educational attainment — a goal President Obama also set shortly after his inauguration.

There’s plenty to do at every step on the education ladder, says a report out today by the nonprofit College Board. The report, developed over two years by a commission studying access, admissions and success in higher education, outlines 10 recommendations aimed at boosting the percentage of young adults with at least an associate degree from 40.4% today to 55% by 2025. That’s where three countries — Canada, Korea and the Russian Federation — are now.

USA TODAY’s Mary Beth Marklein asked College Board president Gaston Caperton and commission chair William "Brit" Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, about how the commission’s work can shape the conversation.

Q. The National Governors Association and several education groups also have weighed in on the need to produce a better-educated society. How does your report advance the conversation?

Caperton: It’s clear that people understand this is an important issue. We said, "We’ve got to figure out some way to move into action." We looked at these 10 recommendations and then did a lot of very difficult work to figure out how we could measure those.

We’re going to report every year on where we are on those 10 issues. Americans are awfully good at setting goals, and once they set it and measure it, they want to win. We look forward to seeing the first report so we can see what progress is being made. I would hope, next year, that people will look at that (just as avidly they look at) how colleges are rated.

Q. Were there any surprises?

Kirwan: I think all of us on the commission, especially those of us in higher education, were really taken by the impact of poverty on school readiness. The impact of poverty is really quite an obstacle.

Q. The report says an effective strategy would be to eliminate disparities between underrepresented minorities and white Americans. Many middle-class white families feel they’re struggling, too. How do you persuade them that everyone benefits by focusing on those most in need?

Caperton: There are two positions you can take. One is to blame the group that is pulling the averages down. The the other is to give them the right kind of education, so they can succeed. Let’s look at it as if it was a family. There’s three brothers and sisters, and one of them has the capacity to learn but doesn’t go to school and doesn’t get a job. Do the other two siblings want to have to supplement the third? It’s best for them to say, "We don’t want to carry you. You’ve got to pay attention to your education." That’s a win for everyone.

Kirwan: We can’t be competitive in the global economy if we don’t have a highly skilled or highly educated workfoce. We can’t be the leader in things that matter if we aren’t the leader in educating our citizens. Everybody benefits when our education levels are high. In addition to the economic well-being of our nation, crime goes down as education levels go up. Health care costs go down. That’s the message we have to do a good job of articulating.

Q. Which recommendation are among the most challenging?

Caperton: One of the really challenging ones is to improve teacher quality. It’s not only the teaching we saw in the past but it’s giving support to the teachers, especially technology. We’re not giving teachers the modern things that they need to inspire, to interest, students. We’ve also got to think about counseling in a much bigger way.

Q. While no single state yet meets the 55% criteria you establish, do any stand out as a state to watch?

Kirwan: Massachusetts, without a question, is emerging as a model. In some ways Massachusetts is a microcosm of the United States. And it shows this really can be done.

Q. Won’t these cost a lot of money?Has anybody put a price tag on all this?

Kirwan: The work done by states to compete for the federal Race to the Top grants (to spur state and district reforms in elementary and high school) have had to make substantial investments already, so that is serving as a very important catalyst.

Caperton: I think you’ve got to think about education as not just an expense but an investment.


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