When it comes to getting its young people to enroll in college and then do what it takes to graduate, the United States is losing its international edge.
Although the nation ranks near the top in the proportion of 35- to 64-year-olds with college degrees, it drops to seventh among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the educational attainment of younger adults, ages 25 to 34.
And while other OECD nations have made dramatic gains in the proportion of young people going to and finishing college, U.S. college-participation rates have remained relatively flat since the early 1990s.
Today, the likelihood that a 9th grader in the United States will enroll in college four years later is less than 40 percent, with students from low-income families and African-American and Hispanic students far less likely to do so than their more affluent, white peers. When they do enroll, low-income students also are more likely to attend public two-year colleges or private institutions that do not grant degrees.
The failure to adequately prepare young people for college is part of the problem.
The United States spends more than $1.4 billion a year on community college remediation for recent high school graduates who haven’t acquired basic skills, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group for high school improvement.
College affordability, meanwhile, has declined dramatically since the early 1990s. Today, it costs the average American family about a fifth of its annual income to pay the total costs for a year of college at a four-year institution, according to an analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
About two-thirds of college students graduate with debt, and over the past decade the amount of that debt has increased by 50 percent after taking inflation into account.
Given that context, it’s not surprising that class disparities in whether and where students attend college are widening.
While only 7 percent of 24-year-olds from low-income families had earned a four-year college degree in 1999-2000, that was true for 52 percent of those from high-income families, according to “Indicators for Opportunity in Higher Education,” a 2005 report by the Washington-based Pell Institute.
- Life of Learning? Despite the rhetoric about lifetime learning, attainment patterns look relatively conventional based on 2005 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. If Americans have not completed high school by age 19, or earned a bachelor’s degree by age 23, they are unlikely to do so in future years.
- Aspiring Higher The vast majority of high school students expect to earn at least a baccalaureate degree. But less than a third of those students achieve their initial aspirations. The gap between expectations and attainment grew more than fourfold between 1980 and 2002.
- Soaring Tuition College affordability continues to worsen in the United States. Since the early 1980s, the rate of increase in college tuition and fees has far outstripped price increases in other sectors of the economy, from the costs of health care to clothing.
- College Readiness To better prepare young people for higher education, many states are working to define what it means to be “college ready.” But much of that work is still in progress. To date, only 11 states have devised college-readiness definitions, which are typically based on the courses students must take in high school rather than on more specific definitions of knowledge and skills.
“We continue to do very well by the best. We continue to privilege the privileged,” says Arturo Madrid, a distinguished professor of humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio. “The true test is how we do by everybody else.”
To better prepare young people for further education, nine states have adopted policies that currently or will make a college-preparatory curriculum the default curriculum for students. Eleven states have developed college-readiness definitions, typically based on the courses students must take in high school. Five states have aligned the course credits required to earn a high diploma with requirements for admission into the state’s postsecondary institutions.
But much more needs to be done, many analysts agree. “I think standards are a necessary first step, but in and of themselves, they don’t impact institutions or students very much,” says Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
He argues that college-readiness standards need to be connected to state policies governing exams for high school graduation and college entrance, financial incentives to lower remediation rates in colleges, the development of K-16 data systems, and accountability policies “that require both sectors to work together to accomplish mutual goals.”
Indeed, colleges and universities are now coming under the same type of accountability pressures as elementary and secondary education, both to increase graduation rates and to demonstrate what students have learned while there.
In 2006, the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization in Washington, administered the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics, to a sample of 1,827 graduating students at 80 randomly selected two- and four-year U.S. colleges.
While college students had higher average levels of literacy than the adult population as a whole, the results showed that 20 percent of graduating seniors at four-year colleges and 30 percent at two-year colleges struggled with such basic quantitative tasks as balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, or determining the amount of interest on a loan.