President Obama's call for more American workers to earn a degree is based upon findings that date back to the previous administration and the report of the Spellings Commission on the future of higher education in the U.S. Simply put, the Commission found that we do not have the workforce we need for the economy we have and require for the future.
In one of the few areas where our political leaders agree, the statistics are indeed sobering. Nearly two-thirds of American workers are without a degree of any type. This at a time when our ability to compete in a global economy is increasingly based upon the knowledge of our workforce.
Not only has America slipped from its position after World War II as the world's leader in terms of an educated workforce, it is now struggling to remain in the top ten among developed countries. And, for the first time in our history, it appears that the next generation of workers will be even less educated than the current one.
A result of this fall off in degree completion is that even in a time of relatively high unemployment, we have millions of jobs going unfilled. The shortage has become so acute in some sectors that jobs are either being sent abroad or the skilled worker is being brought here from overseas. Either way, unemployed Americans are being passed over because they lack the skills and/or credentials necessary to perform the work.
One of the reasons cited, with increasing frequency, for the decline in workers with degrees is that of cost. According to multiple sources, the cost of higher education is now increasing more quickly than that of health care. Yet, neither employers nor unions are taking full advantage of the cost-cutting programs that are available to them.
Many corporations and unions conduct multiple forms of job-related training that can be evaluated for college credit. This credit can then be applied toward the satisfaction of degree requirements for those completing. The American Council on Education, New York's National College Credit Review Service and adult-serving institutions such as my own all conduct these evaluations. While there is a cost for such a review, it can be quickly recovered in tuition savings: employees and union members do not have to use tuition assistance program monies for college courses that cover the same content as that found with evaluated in-house programs.
Another cost savings for both employees and employers can come from credit-by-exam programs offered by such organizations as The College Board (CLEP), Educational Testing Service (DSST) and Excelsior College (ECE and UExcel exams). Using this approach, employees can select degree related topics, study independently with recommended materials and earn credit by passing assessments which cost a fraction of that for a classroom course. By using a combination of free online courses (available through Open Educational Resources, the Creative Commons, the Saylor Foundation and others) and these inexpensive assessments, it is possible even to earn a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution for less than $10,000, depending upon amount of prior earned credit a student can bring to the table.
An evaluation of employer and union provided training, along with credit by examination can save the employee student and the sponsoring employer time and money. Both methods of credit accumulation are long-standing (over 40 years) and are accepted within the higher education community.
In addition to these savings, research by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has found that granting such credit is both an accelerator and a motivator. Time to a credential is reduced and those receiving such credit have been found to graduate at substantially higher rates than those who have not.
At a time when our standard of living and economic security are dependent upon a more educated work force, we need to employ all of the tools available to us. We must help American workers receive the credit they deserve from prior learning -- whether on the job or through alternative forms of study. In the end, it is what they can prove they know, not where or how they learned.