Education Secretary, Experts at DeVry Forum Assess U.S. College Completion Challenge

WASHINGTON – There was a time when the United States led the world in almost every social and economic sector from education to industry. Today, that is no longer true, and several nations have surpassed the U.S. in having the highest rate of college graduates in the workforce. As a result, President Barack Obama has issued a challenge to the nation to regain its former leadership status by producing the world’s largest share of college graduates by 2020.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with expert panelists, offered their perspectives on how best to achieve that goal during a policy forum titled “The 2020 Imperative: College Attainment and US Workforce Development,” hosted by DeVry University on Tuesday.

“As a nation, we need every segment of the education system getting better and holding itself accountable for results,” said Duncan, who delivered brief remarks at the event. “It starts with parents taking more responsibility from the time their children are born and includes our agenda to boost equality of early learning programs. It continues with our K-12 system, where we are working hard on so many fronts to make sure that students are ready for college and careers.”

Duncan said that, in addition to a push for stronger teachers, the administration also is challenging states and districts to adopt higher standards, better assessments and more rigorous curriculums. He noted that 40 percent of students who enroll in college need to take remedial courses and 75 percent of community college students never graduate. Further, employers are saying that they want to see greater emphasis on written and oral communication skills, science and technology, cross-cultural competence, and other skills as well as curriculums that will support green jobs.

“We have to get higher education out of the remediation education business,” he said. “We need to build a college-going culture in our high schools so that every incoming ninth-grader is already planning his or her future.”

The Secretary expressed support for the role that for-profit higher education institutions, such as DeVry, are seeking to play in helping achieve the 2020 goal. In recent years, for-profit institutions have come under heavy criticism for their low graduation rates and high levels of debt undertaken by their students. More recently, national news media, including the New York Times and the PBS Frontline news documentary series, have scrutinized for-profit schools and their practices.

“For-profit institutions play a vital role in training young people and adults for jobs,” Duncan said, noting that a few schools have acted improperly.  

“They are critical to helping America meet the President’s 2020 goal. They are helping us meet the explosive demand for skills that public institutions cannot always meet,” he said.

Al Quinlan, president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, presented statistics at the forum that underscored Americans’ desire to see college made more accessible and affordable. He reported that those without a college degree report significantly less favorable impressions of the nation’s economy and their own personal finances. They or someone in their family are more likely to have lost a job or health-care coverage, faced a reduction of hours or wages, or fallen behind on their mortgage payments, according to Quinlan.

Despite grave concerns about the deficit and government spending, however, Americans want to see government do more to make higher education possible. According to Quinlan, 61 percent say that the federal government should invest in increasing the number of college graduates compared to 31 percent who said it would be a waste of money.

In addition to Duncan and Quinlan, the forum featured a panel of experts on education and workforce development that discussed whether the 2020 imperative is actually achievable and the strategies that must be implemented to get there.

Dr. Nicole Smith, a senior economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, actually predicted that the nation would fall short of the 2020 goal. By 2018, 47 million new jobs will be available for both new and replacement workers; approximately 22 million of those jobs will call for applicants who’ve earned college degrees.

“If we continue with the current status quo and continue to graduate students at the rate we’re doing right now, we will fall short of that number by about 3 million and have a problem matching the demand for college-educated workers,” she said. “We have to continue to challenge the system to meet the [2020 goal].”

Dr. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, applauded the Obama administration, saying that it more than perhaps any other past administration “intellectually and emotionally understands that higher education is the nation’s best hope for long-term economic growth and social progress.”

Still, he said, he’s unsure if the 2020 goal to outpace other nations in producing college graduates is the “right goal.” International comparisons are “notoriously” difficult to do because, in part, most other countries count certificate recipients in their numbers whereas the U.S. does not.

“In 2008 alone, American colleges and universities awarded more than 750,000 certificates that will not be counted in the U.S. rankings but they are counted in the rankings of our international competitors,” Hartle said.

The fundamental goal of simply producing more college graduates is what should be emphasized. But to do so, the nation must ensure that students are better prepared to attend college, thereby increasing the likelihood of graduation, he added.

“About 75 percent of high school students who take a rigorous curriculum finish college with a degree; just about 50 percent who don’t have a rigorous curriculum finish without a degree,” Hartle noted. “We know that if you have to take one remedial [college] course, your chances of staying in college falls a little bit. If you need to take two, it falls more, and, if you have to take three or more, the likelihood of your completing a post-secondary degree is very low.”

Hartle warned that the nation would not reach the 2020 goal or substantially boost the number of college graduates by focusing solely on the traditional 18 to 22 age range of students.

“Even if American colleges and universities had a 100-pecent graduation rate, our attainment in 2020 would be roughly 55 percent, which is still lower than the most conservative estimates of attainment rates for other OECD countries in 10 years,” he said. He urged that extensive steps be taken to reach out to other populations such as members of the U.S. military, adults, displaced workers, low-income students and others.