03/12/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

The Milestone That Matters Most

For the first time in our nation's history, more than 30 percent of adults have earned at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau also notes that 3.8 million Hispanics are now among these highly educated Americans -- a whopping 80 percent more than just a decade ago. This should be music to the ears of everyone who cares about the recovery of the American economy.

Bachelor's degree holders are more likely to be employed and earn higher salaries than those who are less educated. They also tend to be healthier, live longer, and volunteer more in their communities. And for communities of color, earning a bachelor's degree all but erases any difference in economic mobility between them and their white peers.

But if you dig a little deeper into these new census figures, you quickly see that we can hardly afford to be lulled into inaction.

The proportion of Americans with at least a four-year degree may be at an all-time high, but we're not improving fast enough to keep pace with the demands of the U.S. workforce. Research suggests that unless we dramatically expand our pool of graduates, we still will be short by about three million college-educated workers in 2018.

The improvements we're making aren't equitable, either. By age 24, you're ten times more likely to have earned a bachelor's degree if your parents are wealthy than if they are poor. And the gap in college attainment between white students and students of color is actually bigger now than it was in the 1970s. That's a recipe for disaster in a country that enrolls 49 million students in its K-12 public schools, 22 million of whom come from low-income families and 20 million of whom are black, Latino or American Indian -- the very students whose education we've shortchanged for generations.

It's no wonder that our global competitors are passing us by. Last year, the United States ranked fourth in overall college attainment, with 41 percent of adults age 25-64 having earned some kind of postsecondary degree. But among young adults, we fall to 15th. In fact, estimates suggest that today's young people will become the first generation of Americans to be less educated than their parents.

The sad truth is that we'll never regain our global edge if we don't close the domestic gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from their peers. The challenge is daunting. But the strategies and tactics to reverse these dangerous trends are well-known, if not yet widely practiced.

We must end the cycle of clustering low-income kids and kids of color in elementary and secondary schools where we spend less, expect less, and teach less. And we must assign the kids who need the most from school to the educators most able to help them succeed.

We must start educating students in grades K-12 based on what the research and business communities have been telling us for years: In the 21st century, college ready and career ready are synonymous. Whether our kids want to install solar panels or engineer them, the level of skill and knowledge they need by the time they graduate from high school is the same.

We must provide students and their families with the kinds of college information they really need. Instead of magazine rankings that are easily gamed and often have little to do with student learning, having access to reliable data on student outcomes would help reduce the likelihood that students enroll in colleges that don't challenge them, or those that don't guide them toward a degree.

And we need to make college affordable by reinvesting in higher education and targeting scarce financial-aid dollars to those who need them most. Meanwhile, all higher education institutions should be setting equity-minded policies to ensure that all students who walk in the door get a fair shot at graduating with a meaningful degree.

So, before we content ourselves with these latest census milestones, let's remember: At the heart of the experiment called the United States, the one true measure of our common progress is equity. And if we cut through the cacophony that passes for public discourse these days -- in which some shamelessly question the value of a college education -- we'll hear what the Occupy Wall Street protesters have argued for months: Our fast-changing population demands that America deliver on her twin promises of opportunity and social mobility for those who work hard and play by the rules.