The Cracks in Our Education Pipeline

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For half a century, the United States has been producing more college graduates than any other country, an edge that has made us a leader in the global economy. But our previous efforts are no longer enough. Today’s technologies demand a greater number of educated workers than we have ever generated before, and while other nations are rapidly expanding their college enrollments to meet that demand, we are not. In America, the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who are enrolled in postsecondary education or training has barely budged in 10 years. By continuing to do what used to be good enough, we are falling behind.

In truth, America’s higher education pipeline has always been leaky. Currently, for every 100 9th grade students in this country, only 68 reach high school graduation four years later, only 38 enter college by age 19, and only 18 earn associate’s degrees within three years or bachelor’s degrees within six years of enrolling. Some do return to school later, but the number is small, and over the last decade the percentage of midcareer adults enrolled in higher education has dropped in nearly all states.

In the past, when the U.S. workforce was growing explosively with the entry of baby boomers and women, we could tolerate such pipeline losses. Even with our high dropout rates, we were turning out large and growing numbers of college-educated workers. But the prime-age workforce (25- to 54-year-olds), which increased by 35.1 million workers between 1980 and 2000, will grow by only 3 million workers between 2000 and 2020. Whatever room we once had for educational inefficiencies is quickly disappearing.

Unless we improve our performance in educating minority students, the average education level of the American workforce in 2020 will actually be lower than it is today.

In particular, we can no longer afford the inequities that have long characterized our system of education. As our need for educated workers grows, the American workforce is going to come increasingly from the ethnic groups that have been least well served at all levels of American education. By 2020, some 30 percent of our working-age population will be African-American or Hispanic, nearly double the percentage in 1980. And for these students, the pipeline isn’t just leaking; it is gushing.

Only 20 percent of black students and 16 percent of Latinos are graduating from high school adequately prepared for college. And even those who are best prepared are not moving on to higher education as readily as white students. The rate of college enrollment for blacks has improved over the last decade, but it remains substantially lower than for whites with comparable high school preparation. The enrollment rate for Hispanic youths is lower still, and has hardly budged in the last 10 years. As for those black and Hispanic students who do enroll in two- or four-year colleges, only a third (compared with nearly half of whites) graduate in a timely period.

A recent National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report projects the likely outcome if we allow such disparities to continue: Unless we improve our performance in educating minority students, the average education level of the American workforce in 2020 will actually be lower than it is today.

In the last 10 years, American high schools have made some progress on overall measures of college preparation. More high school students are taking rigorous course loads and performing better, on average, on some academic subject tests. But plainly our high schools must do more—and particularly for Hispanic and African-American students. Colleges can do better, too. Research by the Education Trust suggests that colleges which undertake well-designed efforts to retain students can, in fact, have sizable effects on graduation rates. For example, Louisiana Tech’s efforts in this regard increased its six-year graduation rate from 35 percent in 1997 to 55 percent in 2002.

But in addition to poor preparation, what is keeping students out of college—and driving them out once they get there—is simply its unaffordability. Over the last decade, the states have let the cost of sending a child to a public two-year or four-year college rise faster than family income, and neither the states nor the federal government has increased need-based financial aid enough to keep pace. As a result, even among highly qualified high school graduates, low-income students are much less likely to enroll in college than similarly qualified higher-income students. Poor students, in fact, are less likely to enroll in college than wealthy students who are less qualified.

Such gaps represent lost opportunities for the nation as a whole. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education—whose most recent “report card” on higher education provides much of the data I cite here—estimates that if every state were to close the educational gaps between its white and minority youths, we would see 1.2 million additional students enrolled in higher education programs each year, and we would produce 24.5 million more college graduates by 2020.

Piecemeal improvements will not get us to that point. Preparing more students for college will cause only frustration, unless we simultaneously help them enroll in, pay for, and graduate from college. By the same token, making college more accessible and affordable for students who are not academically prepared will only contribute to the increasing costs of higher education.

With their eyes on the global competition, America’s business leaders may be uniquely positioned to appreciate the urgency of the current situation.

The changes must be systemwide, but who will press for that? Current college students and their parents are generally satisfied with higher education because, for them, it is opening doors as it should be. As a result, governors and legislators are cautious about making changes. Higher education administrators may also have difficulty embracing systemic reforms that, while broadening opportunity, may threaten the elite status of their institutions. Reforms will also be difficult without additional funding, and state leaders are already in the challenging position of balancing investments in education with funding needs for transportation, prisons, and Medicaid.

With their eyes on the global competition, America’s business leaders may be uniquely positioned to appreciate the urgency of the current situation. It is, thus, incumbent upon them to make the case to politicians and the public for systemic higher education reform—for the investments necessary to ensure that (1) more students receive better preparation for higher education, (2) institutions of higher education are affordable, particularly for disadvantaged students, (3) colleges and universities have the commitment and capacity to educate all students who are motivated and eligible to attend, and (4) financial and academic support is provided to help students graduate.

Americans should welcome a global society and economy in which nations and states and communities compete to develop human talent, primarily by getting more people better educated. But we must enter this competition and we must win it.

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Pages 45, 56

Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as The Cracks in Our Education Pipeline
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