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Arne Duncan To Report College Completion Rates Rise By Half A Percentage Point

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will speak to the National Governors Association's annual gathering in Williamsburg, Va., on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will speak to the National Governors Association's annual gathering in Williamsburg, Va., on Friday.

The number of Americans with college degrees is inching up slowly, with about 100,000 more students holding post-secondary degrees in 2010 than the year before, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to tell the National Governors Association's annual gathering in Williamsburg, Va., on Friday.

“Every capable, hard-working, and responsible student should be able to afford to go to college. That’s not a Democratic dream or a Republican one. It’s the American Dream,” Duncan will say, according to prepared remarks.

According to census data the Education Department will release in advance of Duncan's speech, the percentage of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a post-secondary degree increased half a percentage point from 38.8 percent in 2009 to 39.3 percent in 2010. These percentages of degree holders varied dramatically across states, ranging from 28.4 percent in Nevada to 68.8 percent in Washington, D.C.

As Duncan and President Barack Obama often note, the U.S. once had the world's highest college completion rate, but has since slipped to 16th. The Education Department billed the Friday speech and the data as showing that the U.S. is making progress toward its 2020 goal, Obama's aim of increasing the percentage of adults holding degrees to 60 percent by that year.

But the glacial pace revealed by the new data shows how unlikely reaching that mark may be. "It's not great news if we're trying to reach 60 percent by 2020, because at this rate we'll meet the 2020 goal in 2060," said Amy Laitinen, a New America Foundation higher education analyst who worked for the Obama administration until last year. "It clearly shows we need a concerted effort by federal and state governments to address this problem. We're moving too slowly."

The administration often refers to the 2020 goal as a "north star" that guides the development of all education policy. "It's not enough to say we have this goal if we don't have a solid plan for getting there," Laitinen said. "It's commendable that the administration has this goal but these data show us that Congress, the administration and governors need to figure out what tough choices they're going to make to help us reach our goals."

The Obama administration has focused on college affordability and completion, amping up the rhetoric that paints college attendance as a middle-class issue as Obama eased into campaign mode.

"We’ve made some progress, but the combination of deep state budget cuts and rising tuition prices is pushing an affordable college education out of reach for middle class families," Duncan will say Friday.

But it remains unclear whether the administration's college policies will come to fruition. In Obama's State of the Union address this year, he proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top competition to incentivize colleges to control their costs; a First in the World competition to spur innovation among colleges in boosting completion; and, more controversially, tying campus-based aid to measures such as graduation rates.

Six months later, Obama can't get funding for the Race to the Top and has received only $39 million in appropriations for First in the World. And Obama has so far provided few details on how he would make colleges work for their financial aid awards. "It's tricky in an election year, because no one wants to upset institutions getting dollars that are already string free," Laitinen said. "We're hearing a lot more around voluntary actions for colleges to get better information out and be more transparent but we're not hearing about what the federal government will require institutions to do."

Forty states have cut funding for higher education over the past year, and public universities now charge students an average of 15 percent more than they did two years ago. These cuts add up, shaping a disturbing trend: Over the last 10 years, tuition cuts and other economic forces have prompted students and families to pay increasingly higher portions of the cost of college.

Duncan will use his platform at the National Governors Association's conference to discuss college affordability, Pell Grant funding and keeping federally subsidized Stafford loan interest rates from doubling. But even though that last fight raged in Congress, it only postponed the problem, as the rates are scheduled to double again next year. Yet, a few congressional offices are starting to discuss ways to make college more affordable, including that of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee will hold a hearing next week on “Making College Affordability a Priority: Promising Practices and Strategies.”

According to a statement released to The Huffington Post, Harkin hopes the hearing will highlight the "many innovations taking place that we need to examine and scale up so our nation can retain its leadership and regain lost ground in this global, knowledge-based economy."

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