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Gregory Cendana Headshot

America's College Graduate Deficit

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As the mid-term elections draw closer, the bandwagon of anti-deficit spending is getting crowded. Self-righteous cries for shortsighted budget cuts masquerading as calls for fiscal responsibility are as common as denunciations of BP. Federal spending in discretionary programs such as higher education, the argument goes, adds to the deficit and therefore makes America less safe.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

American stability depends on our ability to grow a healthy economy driven by a well-educated workforce. Last week, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce concluded that by 2018 the U.S. economy will have 22 million new jobs for college-educated workers. This presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lay a new economic foundation built on the best and brightest workers, right? Wrong. The report also concluded that due to an utter lack of higher education prioritization, the U.S. is on track to being almost eight million college-educated workers short of filling this workforce capacity. We will be running a deficit of 300,000 college graduates every year from now until 2018. In order to make up the difference and meet President Obama's ambitious goal of leading the world in college graduation rates by 2020, the U.S. needs to produce 8.2 million college graduates in the next decade, which would require an increase in higher education spending of $158 billion. While the recently enacted Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act invested about $40 billion into federal aid programs over the next ten years, that still leaves over a $100 billion to be made up for by state governments, not the most friendly of places for college spending. The National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers recently reported that in fiscal year 2010, 36 states cut higher education funding and 31 plan to impose additional cuts in fiscal year 2011. Instead of working towards meeting America's workforce demand, state legislatures are appropriating as if there wasn't a gap to be filled. In 2018 there will be 22 million new American jobs that, without a fundamental shift in higher education policy, will not be filled by American workers. If there is a deficit Congress should worry about, it's our deficit of college-educated workers.

This brings me to a decision the United States Student Association's Board of Directors made a few weeks ago. The Pell grant, which allows millions of low-income students to attend college, currently faces a $5.7 billion shortfall. Because the Pell grant is a discretionary spending item, Congress is under no obligation to provide it with funding. So year after year, appropriators arbitrarily set Pell grant funding levels too low, resulting in a shortfall. Funding to make up this shortfall has been included in the FY2010 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act. The USSA Board of Directors, which is comprised of college students from around the country, voted to not support the bill. The Board members recognized that the $227 billion in federal funding for operations in Afghanistan is a central reason why there has been little money for higher education programs since 9/11. In fact, while national defense makes up over 20 percent of the federal budget, higher education comprises less than one. To ignore this egregious spending disparity and blindly accept war appropriations as a legislative vehicle to fund the Pell grant fails to examine the root cause of why the grant is suffering from a massive shortfall in the first place. The nation's neediest students deserve better than arbitrary funding levels that are reliant upon defense spending breadcrumbs in the federal budget. USSA supports Pell grant funding, but in a responsible way that ensures stability and predictability for students and families. President Obama's proposal to make the Pell grant mandatory funding would provide the kind of investment in today's student that will drive tomorrow's workforce.

Another policy that would move this country closer to once again leading the world in college graduation rates is passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This legislation would provide a pathway to citizenship for qualified undocumented students who complete two years of higher education or military service. Besides the primary reason that everyone, regardless of their citizenship status, has a human right to an education, the DREAM Act is sound workforce development policy. 71 percent of public colleges and universities recently surveyed by the National Association of College Admission Counseling said they received applications from undocumented students. In fact, each year, thousands of undocumented students apply to college; many, however, are rejected because of their immigration status. These are students who could potentially help meet 2018's workforce demand, ensuring America's economy and global competitiveness stay strong. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that undocumented students have a Constitutional right to a K-12 education, so why not extend this right to a higher education? Why invest a decade of time and resources on an undocumented child only to deny them the chance to pursue a college degree? We are shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to grow and stabilize our economy while denying thousands of potential college-educated workers the opportunity to join the American workforce.

Congress should be afraid of deficits, but not just budgetary ones. America's college graduate deficit is a sleeping giant that is not receiving its due attention at a time when state and federal action is required. Higher education has been used as a budget-balancing chopping block by legislators at our workforce's detriment. To lead the world in college graduation rates and meet our full college-educated workforce potential, federal and state leaders must act with political courage and prioritize education as a human right and economic imperative.