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Making Global Citizens

By 2010, President Obama’s goal is to produce an additional 8 million graduates. But will more graduates restore our position as global leader?

By 2010, President Obama’s goal is for America to produce an additional 8 million graduates. But will more graduates help restore our position as global leader?

Less than a generation ago, the United States led the world in college graduates. But the country's days of educational supremacy may be behind it. Today, the United States ranks 12th among 36 developed nations in terms of 25-to-34-year olds with a postsecondary degree.

Reversing America's downward slide in the rankings has become a political priority of the highest order. In a speech at the University of Austin last August, President Obama announced his goal for America to regain the lead in college graduation by 2020, which will mean producing 8 million additional graduates. What's at stake, he said, is the country's viability as a leader in the global economy. Calling education "the economic issue of our time," Obama told the audience that powering up higher education is necessary "if we're serious about making sure America's workers, and America itself, succeeds in the 21st century."

America hasn't so much slipped downward as other countries have surpassed it. In 1995, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 33 percent of young people in the United States had completed university-level education—the highest percentage in all 19 countries surveyed. By 2008, while the figure had risen to 38 percent, 10 countries reported higher percentages. Today, South Korea, Canada, and Russia have the world's highest college graduation rates, each at about 55 percent, compared to 40 percent for the United States

Russ Whitehurst, the Herman and George R. Brown Chair and Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, explains the change historically. "After World War II, we had a territory to ourselves," he says. "The rest of the developed world was in tatters, while we could invest in people going to college." In recent years, other countries have accelerated for a number of reasons, from cultural values—Korea, for example, places a huge importance on educational attainment—to government policies: In Poland college education is largely subsidized by the government.

The President is far from the only observer to make the graduation gap a priority. The College Board has published a list of 10 recommendations for educational institutions and policymakers aimed at increasing college graduation rates. They represent a holistic approach, from providing voluntary preschool education to children from low-income families, implementing research-based dropout-prevention programs in high schools, and controlling the spiraling price of a college education. "More and more people are recognizing that if you just look at one segment of the education pipeline, we are never going to get to the goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with a college degree," says Christen Pollock, Vice President of the College Board's Advocacy and Policy Center.

In light of the mounting sense that the United States should be graduating more young people from college, completion rates—the difference between the number of people who start a degree problem and the number who finish—have come under increased scrutiny. Data from the OECD show the United States leading in terms of dropout rates: over 50 percent of U.S. students who start a degree program don't finish it, compared to an average of 31 percent across OECD nations. The factors contributing to the nation's high college-dropout rate include inadequate preparation in high school, overly complicated financial-aid processes, and, within colleges, a lack of emphasis on completing a degree, according to research conducted by Grantmakers For Education, a nonprofit group that advises educational philanthropies.

The issue of completion is of particular interest since students who don't finish their degrees are disproportionately from minority groups. "It's been estimated that closing the completion gap between underrepresented minorities and whites could get us a third to half of the way toward Obama's goal," says Jennifer Engle, assistant director for higher education at The Education Trust. According to Engle, in schools that manage to raise their completion rates, including those for minority students, two factors—high-level leadership and the smart use of data—seem to be strongly associated with success.

California State University, for example, has announced an ambitious initiative to increase its completion rates by 8 percent in 2015. Taking a data-driven approach to the completion issue, Georgia State University discovered that many students who dropped out later in college returned for their second year without having accumulated enough credits to achieve sophomore standing. Armed with that information, it put appropriate interventions into place, improved its completion rates, and now graduates black students at a 5 percent higher rate than white students.

Further, recent changes to the way that federal student loans are financed will allow for an expansion of the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income and middle-income students go to college. But an Obama proposal called the American Graduation Initiative, which would have channeled $12 billion to community colleges to improve their completion records, was stricken from the student aid bill this spring.

But even if we does succeed in regaining the lead in graduation, will that really translate to an edge in the world economy? Few people dispute that attending college makes economic sense for many individuals. College graduates earn more money that non-graduates and have experienced less unemployment during the economic downturn. "A post-secondary degree is what's necessary to compete in today's workforce," says Christen Pollock. "If we have not trained and educated out people to that level, jobs are going to go overseas, and they're not going to come back."

Others claim that the focus on education can mask other, more potent forces influencing our place in the world economy. Writer and talk-show host David Sirota has argued that American jobs are going overseas not because educated Americans aren't available to fill them, but because U.S. trade policy makes offshoring profitable for corporations. Indeed, about a third of U.S. college graduates aged 25 to 29 work at low-skilled jobs, which is higher than average for industrialized countries—and not immediately reflective of demand for highly-educated workers exceeding supply.

Whitehurst says that a single-minded push to produce more college graduates is not likely to be enough. In general, he says, "countries with more college graduates seem to be more economically productive. But there are many things involved in international competitiveness in addition to the education levels of our workforce." Creating educated workers is a good thing, but it cannot substitute for careful attention to what generates demand for an educated workforce. "On average, getting our graduation rates up is a good thing to do and on average it's likely to pay a premium for the country," says Whitehurst. “But only if the other portions of what makes an economy strong are nurtured."

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