College & Workforce Readiness

No. 1 in College Attainment by 2020: A Reasonable Goal?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 21, 2009 3 min read

Both hopeful and humbling notes were sounded today at a meeting of policy wonks and practitioners exploring ways to fulfill President Obama’s goal of restoring the United States’ rank as world leader in its share of college graduates by 2020.

Arthur M. Hauptman, an independent policy consultant who recently co-authored a paper for the Boston-based Jobs For the Future that examined U.S. educational attainment compared with that of other nations, cited data showing that our postsecondary attainment has been on an upward trajectory for decades. “This is not stagnation, folks,” he told the packed house at the Center for American Progress, in Washington. “This is growth.”

He also welcomed the shift in the national dialogue from boosting college enrollment to boosting college completion, noting that completion provides a fairer picture not only of how we’re doing with easing access to college, but success in it as well.

Still, Hauptman wasn’t all smiles and roses on the country’s chances of meeting President Obama’s goal. He pointed out that while two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college, only about half finish. “We may be able to do it, but I wouldn’t put money on it,” Hauptman said, sparking a few uncomfortable chuckles from the audience.

One of The President’s Men was also there to put some bracing numbers on what it will take. James Kvaal, the senior director of the White House National Economic Council, said that raising the proportion of Americans with college degrees from 40 percent to 55 or 60 percent would mean 8 million additional college degrees. (Give us a second to let that settle in. Eight million. Ohhh-kay.) And to get more of those degrees in hand, we’ll need not only to raise high school graduation rates, but also to increase high school rigor, “goals that are,” Kvaal said politely, “somewhat in tension with each other.”

Participants in the discussion noted that in pinning its hopes on more postsecondary education, the nation is turning increasingly to community colleges. A recent paper written for the Center for American Progress has scads of data showing the rise in enrollment and degree-granting at two-year colleges. And one of Hauptman’s three recommendations for increasing attainment was to focus on community colleges. In short, those intrepid two-years seem to be poised to carry a ton of our water on the goal of increasing college attainment.

Some of the panelists welcomed that development, noting the vital role community colleges play in educating broad swaths of Americans. Nancy Hoffman of Jobs For the Future even quipped that community colleges have “come out of the closet” as they assume such a prominent role in the attainment discussion.

But coming out has its pressures. Can community colleges handle all that will be expected of them? Can high schools learn new ways of doing business so that students graduate fully capable of doing college-level work in two- and four-year institutions?

Sitting next to me was Gregory A. Schuckman, the chairman of the board of Northern Virginia Community College. He waited patiently through the whole forum, and his hand was one of the first to shoot up when the question-and-answer period began. Is it realistic, he asked the panel, to expect attainment rates to rise so much when so many kids enter community college far from being able to work up to speed, and so many don’t persist even to associate’s degrees? Who, he asked, should be held accountable for fixing those disconnections?

Good question. The way you answer probably says something about your respective levels of cynicism and faith. But in the meantime, as the public looks to community colleges to make big changes, it’s a matter of “managing expectations,” as Schuckman told me.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.