College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Risks Falling Behind In College-Participation Rate

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2003 3 min read
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Despite steadily increasing college enrollments nationwide, higher education participation in the United States is stagnating compared with other developed countries, a study released last week has found.

“Closing the College Participation Gap: A National Summary” is available from the Education Commission of the States’ Center for Community College Policy. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Efforts to boost postsecondary access have been undermined by high dropout rates, poor participation among low-income and minority students, and state budget cuts, according to the report by the Education Commission of the States.

By making only modest gains over time, the United States risks falling further behind other industrialized nations, such as Canada, South Korea, and Sweden, that have taken aggressive steps to help students pay for college and to prepare them for it academically, concludes the report, “Closing the College Participation Gap.”

“We’re sort of in a holding pattern, compared with some other nations,” said Sandra S. Ruppert, a program director for the Denver-based education policy organization and the author of the report.

Rather than focusing on the raw number of students enrolling in higher education, which the study’s authors say can produce misleading statistics, the ECS report compares college access by examining “participation rates.” Those estimates measure the proportion of the population of different ages securing either high school or college diplomas.

See Also...

See the accompanying chart, “Educational Attainment.”

In 1980, 66 percent of the U.S. adult population 25 years and older had finished high school, and 16 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree, the report says. Today, those figures are 80 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Judged historically, today’s proportions reflect a relative stagnation in college-degree attainment, the study concludes.

Equally troubling, according to the ECS, are findings that today’s 25- to 34-year-olds are less likely to have either a high school diploma or a college degree than older age groups. Baby boomers— people born between 1946 and 1964—are being replaced by a generation that is both smaller in number and no better educated. That trend has “chilling implications” for U.S. economic productivity, the ECS found.

According to the study, 17.3 million people in the United States are at least 18 years old and are currently enrolled in college. If trends continue, there will be a net enrollment increase of 2.3 million, or almost 13 percent, by 2015.

The United States would need a net enrollment gain of more than 8 million by 2015 to meet the college-participation levels projected for the best-performing states in the country, the report says.

Colleges and K-12

In evaluating the United States’ performance internationally, the ECS drew from data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of 30 industrialized nations.

In 2000, the OECD found that the United States was tied for 13th place among developed nations in the percentage of its population that entered postsecondary education. While the United States dominates in the proportion of adults ages 25 to 64 who have completed high school, other countries have made greater strides in the educational attainment of their younger populations, the ECS report says.

David A. Longanecker, the executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in Boulder, Colo., said he hoped the ECS study would offer policymakers a more accurate picture of college access, and the risks the United States faces in slipping behind other nations.

Promoting college access is “part of a pipeline,” said Mr. Longanecker. “Part of it is academic preparation, part of it is culture, part of it is finance.”

The ECS study found that college participation varied greatly among states. Alaska’s participation rate among 18- to 24-year olds was 19.2 percent; Rhode Island’s was one of the highest, at 47.7 percent.

States with the highest levels of college participation tended to provide the greatest amount of state-based financial aid to needy students, the report found.

North Carolina is one state that’s tackling the problem head-on. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced last week that it will completely pay for tuition and room and board expenses of qualified low-income freshmen.

The $1.38 million Carolina Covenant program will start in the fall of 2004 for the incoming freshman class. About 8 percent of the university’s 281 freshmen this fall came from low-income families.

Annual in- state tuition for the university is $4,072, and the total annual cost of attending UNC-Chapel Hill is approximately $13,000.


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