It is well known that a higher education brings enormous benefits. As the U.S. Committee for Economic Development has pointed out, workers who have at least a bachelor's degree earn twice as much as those with only a high school diploma. What's more, this gap is likely to keep growing. As the CED report argues, "by 2018, more than 60 percent of jobs in the United States will require postsecondary credentials," meaning that "three million additional credentialed workers will be needed in the next four years."
As these numbers make clear, the consequences of the higher education income gap extend beyond individual wages to affect the broader competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Without the skills and competencies afforded by post-secondary education, workers and businesses alike will find it difficult to compete in the global knowledge economy. None of this is controversial--so why isn't more being done about it? Where is the push from parents, businesses, and policymakers to expand access to higher studies?
There are a number of reasons. The first has to do with regulation. On the one hand, it is very difficult for new education providers to get accredited, putting up high barriers to entry. But once accreditation is granted, there is little follow up oversight. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, "accreditors rarely crack down on their member schools, even when they have low graduations rates or high rates of students loan defaults. In the past 15 years, the six regional accrediting organizations that give a seal of approval to more than 1500 four-year colleges have rescinded membership to only 18 of them." Over the same period, nearly 31 million students have enrolled in college only to leave without completing their studies.
A second issue is funding. As the Gates Foundation has pointed out, the student loan system in the United States is convoluted and unnecessarily drives potential students away. A complex application process often deters students, with up to two million students a year giving up on financial aid, and mostly falling away from the college path. And other research has shown that of the 111 million adults without a college degree, many overestimate the costs of a higher education due to faulty information. Exacerbating the situation, a lack of transparent information on college outcomes hinders students' ability to understand the return on investment for different career paths.
These problems are especially daunting for adult and non-traditional students, who often can't get a clear idea of the choices facing them. "Simply put, the bridge from high school to postsecondary attainment and career opportunities is broken," concludes a major report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). "To solve this problem, more high school students must get into community and technical colleges--and on pathways to postsecondary attainment and career advancement--much sooner."
This achievement gap in college attainment has particular implications for Hispanic students. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 40 percent of white adults between the ages of 25 and 29 have a bachelor's degree, compared with just 15 percent of Hispanics. Dropout rates are also a major red flag: 62 percent of white students that enter college finish with a degree, versus just over half of Hispanic students. As the group with the highest birth rate in the nation, Hispanic student performance will only continue to grow in importance.
If we are going to prepare our students for the global marketplace, we must address the challenges minority students face, find ways to keep them in high school, and then support their transition to higher education--whether traditional four year college or vocational training. Too much of the current debate revolves around the students that are already in the system. As Jim Milton, CEO of the education firm Campus Management, argues, "we need to expand the conversation to include non-traditional students--like dropouts, working adults, and others--that don't have many alternatives for getting education."
The opportunity is there if we know how to take advantage of it--the private sector's need for highly educated, highly skilled workers is only going to grow. Thus, as the SREB argues, states must promote a full range of postsecondary options: community colleges, technical training, technology centers, and apprenticeships. "Too many spend their early adult years undereducated and underemployed," the report concludes. It is time to change that.
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