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Federal Postsecondary Education Leader Urges Unity on College Completion Message

SAN FRANCISCO – The many constituencies comprising U.S. higher education should come together to “speak with one voice” to the rest of this country on college completion, says Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education. 

Ochoa, whose office administers most federal programs for colleges and students, stopped short of specifying how the academic community should communicate the importance of getting a college degree. “How higher education responds to this call is not up to me. But we all have shared values, and we know the transformative power that education has, not just in economic returns, but in the power to enrich our society and personal lives. Those things, we can all agree on, and we ought to be able to speak to our nation.”    

Ochoa’s remarks came during the annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) last week. His comments dovetailed with the conference theme of “Global Positioning: Essential Learning, Student Success and the Currency of U.S. Degrees.” During an address to college presidents, for instance, Ochoa noted how the so-called Bologna Process “has challenged U.S. higher education” to play catch-up in forging international partnerships and study abroad initiatives. Named for the University of Bologna in Italy where it was first proposed, the Bologna Process is the effort among institutions in 47 countries, many of them European, to make academic degree standards and quality assurance standards comparable and compatible so that students and researchers can more easily move from one country to another for employment or advanced study. “The world is not standing still,” Ochoa said, “and neither must we.”  

Recent statistics indicate that Americans are indeed more insular in postsecondary education than people in other countries. In the 2009-10 school year, more than 690,000 individuals attended U.S. colleges as international students enrolled in full-time degreed programs, but only 260,000 American students went abroad for stints varying from a week to barely a year, said Nichole[CQ] Johnson of the Institute of International Education. “There’s lots of room for opportunity.”  

Historically, America hasn’t aggressively recruited students from overseas. This contrasts with Australia, for example, where college education is its third-largest export, said Dr. Nigel Cossar, the University of Melbourne’s associate director of global mobility programs. Because government funds comprise only 22 percent of the budgets of Australian colleges, the institutions must tap other sources for income. In 2010, more than $10 billion[CQ] in tuition and fees were paid by international students, excluding room and board, which made a significant economic impact in Australia. The University of Melbourne alone boasts some 12,000 degree-seeking international students – or 27 percent of its total enrollment. “Australia is often criticized for so much international recruiting,” Cossar said. “But it would be far more difficult to perform research and teach local students without the funds generated by foreign students.”

About 2,000 educators at the AACU conference spent time debating the meaning of student success in an increasingly globally interdependent world. Among other things, they examined the quality of learning among students as well as campus innovations in globalization of the undergraduate curricula.

Regardless of whether students attend domestically or abroad, the fact that U.S. college completion rates have stayed flat since 1972 “is a major problem,” said Hilary Pennington, director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s postsecondary success and special initiatives division. “We have fallen from No.1 in the world to No.9 in degree attainment.”

Recognizing that, Ochoa said he has suggested a creative partnership among education associations to promote a national conversation about “higher education as a whole.” Such an effort also would support efforts toward reaching President Obama’s ambitious goal of significantly improving degree attainment by 2020 so that the U.S. can reclaim its status in the world as having the highest proportion of college graduates among its population.

“We must find common ground and frame a national discourse,” Ochoa said. “Only then can we renew our body politic.” 

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