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Panel Sets College Completion Goals

A blue-ribbon panel of educators called Wednesday for a national effort to raise college completion rates among younger Americans, particularly students of color, to reverse a downward trend that is leaving the United States far behind other industrialized nations.

Once ranked second in the world in young adults with a college degree, the United States is now 11th among industrial nations, said members of a 28-member commission convened by the College Board.

U.S. high school completion rates also are below many international competitors

The report is “a plea, a call and an alarm” to invest more in education across the United States, said James Wright, Dartmouth College president, at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

The Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education called for a national effort from preschool through higher education to raise college completion rates among Americans ages 25 to 34. The panel set a goal that 55 percent of young adults attain a community college degree or higher by 2025; the current rate is about 40 percent.

To support the goal, the panel seeks more need-based grant aid and a streamlined college admissions process. But many recommendations have a K-12 emphasis, with calls for improved middle and high school counseling, stronger dropout prevention programs and improved teacher recruitment and retention practices. All low-income children also should have access to quality preschool to help youngsters start school effectively.

“In urban education, we know that children enter the system with deficits,” said Joyce Brown, manager of secondary school counselors for the Chicago Public Schools, a commission member. School counselors also need the time and training to focus less on day-to-day school concerns and more on preparing young people for college.

Dr. William ‘Brit’ Kirwan, commission chairman and chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the panel arrived at a 55 percent college completion goal after reviewing trends in other nations. In some of these countries, completion rates already are at or above 50 percent. Moreover, the United States rate could slip, not increase, in the future without major intervention. “We’re at 40 percent now, but we’re moving toward 29,” he said. “There’s a major competitiveness factor here.”

One area of bad news in the data is the continued decline in U.S. high school completion rates. While the United States led the world in high school completion for much of the 20th century – posting a 77 percent rate back in 1972 – the country ranks 21st among advanced economies today with a rate of only 67 percent, the report said.

And among young adults with college degrees, the United States is behind not only Japan and Canada but also Russia, Korea, Ireland and Spain, said the commission’s full report, “Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future.”

To draw attention to the goal, the College Board proposes to report annually on United States progress toward the 55 percent college completion goal. Aside from actual completion data, the annual report will examine preschool enrollment rates, high school dropout rates, college affordability and college retention rates.

“We must regain our drive to excel and take the actions necessary to get us back on track as a nation,” said Gaston Caperton, College Board president.

The commission included Joseph McDonald, president and founder of Salish Kootenai College, a tribal college, as well as officials from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the American Council on Education. More information is online at

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