Education Policy
Investing in America's Future
Arnold L. Mitchem 11.17.09, 2:00 PM ET 

Our country is losing its competitiveness because we are not adequately
investing in human capital. The most ominous sign of this trend is that
the educational attainment of young adults is slipping steadily: The
U.S. is the most developed nation in the world, yet it is now, according
to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 15th among
29 industrialized countries in college completion rates.

This failure to prepare our workforce is already having serious
repercussions. The Business-Higher Education Forum recently warned that
the "glaring and growing need" for higher-skilled and credentialed
workers is exacerbating the nation's economic woes and hobbling its
long-term outlook. And many employers note that the gap between
workforce needs and worker skills is already significantly compromising

In California, two-fifths of the state's jobs are expected to require
college degrees by the year 2020. But the number of adults with those
credentials will fall far short, according to projections cited by the
National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Researchers
project that California can meet its future workforce needs--but only if
it increases the number of Hispanics who earn college degrees.

The Obama administration wants to reverse the decline in our
baccalaureate attainment, and has set a goal that the U.S. will produce
the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. To
reach that goal, the administration plans to increase the Pell Grant
program, reform and expand the reach of community colleges, invest
federal money in research and data collection, reform the student loan
program and simplify the student aid application process.

Baccalaureate attainment, of course, is the key to realizing President
Obama's goal, and the sine qua non for assuring America's economic
competitiveness. But we will not meet the administration's goal if the
president and Congress continue to oversimplify the task of graduating
students from families with no college background--the vast majority of
low-income students--by relying principally on a financial aid strategy.
That tactic is well meaning, but short-sighted.

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Instead, we must put in place strategies to ensure that a higher
proportion of nontraditional students--low-income, first-generation,
minority and older students--not only enter but complete college.
Low-income, first-generation students face a myriad of obstacles--class,
cultural, informational, academic and social--to postsecondary
education, not simply a lack of financial resources. 

Two industry leaders understand the complexity of this challenge.
General Electric (through its Developing Futures initiative) and Goldman
Sachs (through its Developing High-Potential Youth and other programs)
are underwriting efforts to help low-income and minority youth address
these multiple barriers. The premise of these programs is simple:
provide services through an array of personal and academic interventions
both in and out of the classroom that focus squarely on baccalaureate
attainment. In doing so, they are expanding approaches like Upward Bound
and Student Support Services (the so-called TRIO programs) that have
been operating with federal support since 1965, and that currently serve
more than 800,000 students from sixth grade through college graduation. 

But unfortunately, although 5.5 million students receive federal grant
aid to attend college, fewer than 5% of those college students receive
the vital supportive services necessary to maximize that investment.

The results of federal higher education policy are a glaring testament
to its insufficiency. While the president proposes to invest $28 billion
in Pell Grants, an amount that has ballooned by 214% in the last eight
years, the gap in college completion based on income has widened.
Students in the lowest income quartile have less than a 10% chance of
earning a bachelor's degree by age 24.

We must change course.

What's desperately needed now to meet President Obama's goal is a policy
focus that recognizes that first-generation students, especially those
from low-income families, face more obstacles to college graduation than
just an empty pocketbook. In other words, we must abandon the notion
that financial aid is the silver bullet, and couple our grants,
scholarships and loans with interventions that address class, cultural,
academic and informational obstacles to graduation--a course of action
that is grounded in four decades of experimentation and success in both
the private and public sectors. 

Arnold L. Mitchem is president of the Council for Opportunity in
Education <>  in Washington, D.C.