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Mitchell: U.S. College System Underperforming

Ted MitchellTed Mitchell

The United States has some of the best colleges and universities in the world but is underperforming as a system, Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell said at the Education Writers Association (EWA) national seminar in Boston on Monday.

In 1995, the United States led the world in college completion. According to the most recent numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rate of college degree completion in the U.S. has slowed compared to other wealthy nations. In other words, the overall graduation rate is going up but not as fast as in other countries.

While the nation’s premier institutions have high graduation rates, they are only educating a small subset of the total number of college-going students. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the national six-year graduation rate is 40 percent. Students who attend school full-time have a much higher rate of graduation, at 60 percent. In addition, students who start college at 20 years of age or younger are more likely to graduate.

“We’ve defined quality narrowly,” Mitchell said. “We’ve defined quality [by] the kind of people who get into our institutions. We’ve defined quality by the size of buildings and by the size of endowments.”

Instead of focusing on broad access, colleges and universities are incentivized to define institutional quality in terms that are often more exclusive than inclusive. At risk is long-term educational and economic mobility, Mitchell added, since many students do not attend colleges and universities full-time. Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, where the average age is 29 years old. Students at community colleges are likely to attend school part-time, be an adult learner, or may be working to support themselves in college.

“To talk about quality, without talking about equity and access is simply foolish if what we’re looking for is a higher education system that can continue to propel American democracy and the American economy forward,” Mitchell said.

Challenges in the sector call for a reconsideration of traditional models of education, Mitchell said, such as a more hybrid model of education combining online education and mentoring or other modalities.

Mitchell also touched on some of the more controversial elements of the administration’s higher education efforts in recent years—namely, shakeups within the for-profit college industry, recommendations from the Office for Civil Rights concerning Title IX and sexual assault, and accreditation issues.

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