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Investing in America's Future
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 productivity.
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.
industry leaders understand the complexity of this challenge.
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.