06/13/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Fixing America's Talent Problem

America produces lots of things in abundance. We grow enough corn to feed people around the globe. We develop amazing athletes who lead the world in Olympic medals. And only Britain turns out more reality TV shows than us. Yes, we know how to produce. But when it comes to generating enough talent to meet future workforce and societal needs, America is failing.

According to a new report, "A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education," 38.7 percent of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) held a two- or four-year college degree in 2011 -- the most recent year for which data are available. That figure is up from 2010, when the rate was 38.3 percent and from 2009, when the rate was 38.1 percent.

Unfortunately, that's not enough. Research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce tells us that two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020. That startling reality exposes just how big the gap is between where America is and where it needs to be. And it raises the question, "What should we expect policymakers, employers, and higher education leaders to do about it?"

This is an important question, because the strength of our nation -- or any nation ― is our people, the sum total of talents, skills and abilities inherent in our citizenry. And only with sufficient talent, and the right kinds of talent, can we truly succeed.

Talent development, then, must be America's prime objective. We need a shared sense of urgency on this important issue, because we can't expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st century economy and society without a 21st century education.

There are only a finite number of ways to produce talent. Immigration is one way. We'll see soon how that strategy goes in the coming weeks and months. And yet as important as immigration is, and has always been, to our talent development efforts, postsecondary education is really the primary vehicle that drives America's talent engine.

Policymakers, employers, higher education officials and community leaders all have a big role to play in shaping the nation's huge demand for talent. Here are some ideas for them to consider.

For starters, new models of student financial support must be created. So, we need our leaders to get serious about making college more affordable, making costs more predictable and transparent, providing incentives to increase completion, and aligning federal, state and institutional policies and programs.

In tandem, we need our leaders to help create a new business model for higher education that significantly expands the nation's capacity to deliver affordable and high-quality education. And the new model must be supported by public finance and regulatory policies that create incentives and remove barriers to innovation.

We also need a better approach to measuring what students know. That means creating a national system of credentials and credits that is based on learning and competencies rather than time. This new system should offer clear and transparent pathways to students, support high-quality learning and respond to workforce needs and trends.

Increased attainment rates are needed across all 50 states. Governors and legislators need to advance state policy for increased attainment through the adoption of formal goals and implementation plans that are specific, challenging and focused on addressing the attainment gaps for underrepresented populations.

Similarly, members of Congress and the White House must advance federal policy for increased attainment by implementing policies that create new models for student financial support, result in stronger public information and quality assurance mechanisms, and link federal workforce development and higher education policy.

This alignment between postsecondary attainment and the labor market is essential. Employers and higher education leaders will need to do a much better job of collaborating in order to help find the right fit. Together, they can set attainment goals, build public will for success and better match what students know with what employers need.

Finally, higher education institutions and systems must be mobilized in a way that increases the adoption of data- and evidence-based policies, partnerships, and practices. And we need more institutions to commit to closing attainment gaps for under-served students and improving overall completion rates.

The Stronger Nation report shows that degree attainment rates among adults (ages 25-64) in the U.S. continues to be woefully unbalanced with 59.1 percent of Asians having a degree versus 43.3 percent of Whites, 27.1 percent of Blacks, 23.0 of Native Americans and 19.3 of Hispanics. Given the increasingly severe consequences that come with not having a degree beyond high school for both individuals and society at large, this is an intolerable situation.

That's one big "to-do" list for fixing America's talent problem. Yet as a nation, our collective response to this challenge will most certainly define our economic and social well-being for decades to come. We are a nation of producers and it's time for us to start producing the talent we need to meet future workforce and civic needs.

Jamie Merisotis is President and CEO of Lumina Foundation.