Higher Education Report Jibes With U.S. Panel’s Work

By Alyson Klein — September 08, 2006 5 min read
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Just as the Department of Education is preparing its own prescription for improving the nation’s higher education system, a report issued Sept. 7 finds that the United States is slipping behind other countries in its rates of college enrollment and completion.

The report and background information on “Measuring Up 2006" is posted by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The “Measuring Up 2006” report, released here by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit organization based in San Jose, Calif., finds that while the United States still leads the world in the proportion of people ages 35 to 64 with a degree from a two- or four-year college, it ranks seventh on that measure for 25- to 34-year-olds.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, appearing at the press conference with the presenters of the report, said there was “much alignment” between the report’s findings and the suggestions of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a federal panel that she has established to make long-term recommendations for the postsecondary education system.

“Our educational strengths are in our older population,” Patrick M. Callan, the president of the higher education center, said. He said the United States was “off to a problematic start” in improving the number of workers with college degrees, partly because many students who enroll in college never graduate.

“Completion is the Achilles’ heel of American higher education,” Mr. Callan said.

The federal commission approved a draft version of its report last month and plans to release a final version this month. The draft called for more precise data on graduation and completion rates and an expansion of need-based student financial aid. It also urged colleges to administer assessments to measure student learning. (“Department Seeks Input on Higher Ed. Panel’s Suggestions for Change,” Aug. 30 2006.)

“We are about one-third investors in higher education,” Ms. Spellings said in reference to the federal government’s contribution to overall U.S. spending on the education sector. “I think it’s right that we should ask some questions about how we are doing.”

She added that the Education Department plans to place special emphasis on higher education policy, building on the work of the commission. She intends to outline the next steps at a meeting in Washington later this month.

World Comparisons

Measuring Up

The United States remains among the leaders in college participation, but it ranks in the bottom half in college completion.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

The “Measuring Up” report, the fourth since the center’s series made its debut in 2000, grades each state’s higher education system on a scale of A through F. The areas evaluated include the K-12 prepa-ration of students entering higher education, college-participation rates, affordability, completion rates, learning, and “benefits,” as measured by the state’s proportion of adult residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher, the increase in an individual’s income resulting from a bachelor’s degree, voter participation, and other factors.

This is the first edition of the report to examine U.S. higher education in an international context. The United States still performs well on its rate of college participation, ranking fifth among 30 industrialized nations. But it ranks 16th on college-completion rates, as measured by the number of degrees awarded for every 100 students enrolled in college, according to data cited in the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of 30 nations that frequently reports education data.

Travis J. Reindl, the director of state-policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, said that while the findings on where the United States stands internationally are “not new news,” the report adds “another voice to the ‘we’ve got issues’ chorus.”

“That point needs to be reinforced until it takes root in policy,” Mr. Reindl said.

Meanwhile, the gap between college costs and family income continues to widen rapidly in a number of states. The report gave 43 states an F for college affordability, up from 36 states that received that grade in 2004. No state received an A or B in that category; the highest grade was a C-minus, given to Utah and California.

The affordability category examines the percentage of family income needed to pay tuition costs at a four-year public college and the level of student debt, among other criteria.

Some states experienced a significant spike in the percentage of family income needed to cover tuition costs at a four-year public college, including Ohio, where that figure jumped from 28 percent in the 1992-93 academic year to 42 percent during in 2005-06, and New Jersey, where it rose from 24 percent to 37 percent in the same period.

But the nation appears to be improving somewhat in terms of students’ preparation for college, according to the report. For instance, from 1991-92 to the 2003-04, at least 24 states saw a boost in the number of 9th through 12th graders taking at least one upper-level mathematics course. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of students taking such classes jumped from 40 percent to 72 percent during that period. Forty-one states received an incomplete in the area of “learning” because they have no system in place for measuring student outcomes, according to Mr. Callan, the president of the higher education policy center. Nine states received a “plus” in that area because of their participation in a pilot project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts aimed at exploring accountability, or for offering a state-level version of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Those ratings represent some improvement since the 2000 report, when all 50 states received an incomplete in the learning category, said former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who is chair-man of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and is a member of Secretary Spellings’ commission.

“I really believe we can get colleges and universities to measure student learning,” he said.

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