Sara Hebel and Jeffrey J. Selingo | The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 26, 2009
Before President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, the White House compared the purpose of the event to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. But for higher education, Mr. Obama was more like John F. Kennedy when he issued the challenge in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
This president’s goal was equally daunting: for the nation to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. “That is a goal we can meet,” he said to applause in the chamber.
But is it?
College and university leaders were clearly delighted that Mr. Obama dedicated so much time in his speech to higher-education issues, which had for years taken a back seat to elementary and secondary education in presidential addresses. But, by Wednesday, the enormity of the task that has long been on college administrators' wish list became evident again.
“It’s absolutely achievable, but it’s ambitious,” Hilary Pennington, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s postsecondary program, said in an interview. “It’s a stretch goal.”
In November, the Gates foundation announced that it would spend several hundred million dollars over the next five years to double the number of low-income young people who complete a college degree or certificate program by age 26 (The Chronicle, November 21). Recognizing the difficulty of the task, the Gates foundation set a slightly longer time frame for its goal than the president did for his—2025 instead of 2020.
Ms. Pennington said President Obama’s speech might have helped in one of the biggest hurdles to achieving the foundation's goal of doubling college-completion rates: first, recognizing that a problem exists.
“The American public thinks that if you go to college, you finish,” she said. “The president has the unique ability to make sure we break through the noise and make people realize that many more countries are taking this more seriously than we are.”
Spotlight on an Issue
Efforts that have been under way to bolster the country’s educational attainment are now likely to get a lot more attention, thanks to Mr. Obama. For the Lumina Foundation for Education, the president’s challenge on Tuesday night was a perfect prologue to a 131-page document that the group is set to release today detailing steps institutions and the federal and state governments must take to increase the proportion of Americans with “high quality” degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. It was a goal the foundation set about a year ago to guide its work.
“When we started the journey of our big goal, we knew that it would be seen as audacious,” Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the foundation, said. “After hearing President Obama’s commitment in his speech … we see the positive energy and drive to move America in this direction.”
The foundation’s new report lays out an action plan that urges governments to bolster community colleges by focusing on improving completion and transfer rates and aligning their programs to meet the most critical work-force needs. It also advises states and the federal government to do more to increase educational opportunities for returning veterans and recent immigrants, and to increase need-based student aid.
To help begin to “turn the tide” fairly quickly, the Lumina report says, policy makers and leaders can focus first on finding residents who have some college experience but have not earned a degree and help them go back to complete their program.
One idea, Mr. Merisotis said, might be for more institutions and states to begin accelerated programs for associate degrees so adults and other students who are ready can complete their studies at less cost and in less time.
Leaders in Washington, he said, also need to motivate states and be a “driver” to help them adopt programs and policies that move them toward the specific national goal.
A Difficult Goal to Track
One stumbling block to reaching the goal—whether it is the one established by the president, Gates, or Lumina—is knowing when it has actually been accomplished. Ms. Pennington said data systems that track students must be improved. “It’s very hard to achieve a goal if you can’t measure your progress,” she said.
For now, the data set everyone seems to be using in establishing a goal is that of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the Paris-based organization, 39 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States have an associate degree or higher, ranking the nation 10th among 30 countries. In the top-ranking country, Canada, 55 percent of adults in that age group hold an associate degree or higher.
But if a larger pool of Americans are included, the United States actually performs much better. The nation is ranked fifth among 30 countries for the percentage of the population between 25 and 65 years old with an associate degree or higher.
Complicating the problem, said Joseph L. Marks, director of education-data services at the Southern Regional Education Board, is that the United States has a higher proportion of educated older people than do other countries. “It’s going to be challenging for us to move these numbers,” Mr. Marks said, "because the student groups that are growing the fastest [Hispanic students] currently have the lowest participation rate in higher education."
Even so, Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the goal of putting the United States back on top is doable. For one thing, he said, the nation has enough institutions to educate greater percentages of its residents.
To reach the president’s objective, Mr. Callan said it will take more fundamental changes than adding more dollars to the Pell Grant or increasing income-tax credits for tuition costs. But it won’t necessarily require more money. The United States, he said, spends about 3 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education, roughly twice the percentage of virtually every other developed country.
“Sort of like the health-care system, we can’t spend our way out” of the problems, Mr. Callan said.