The next few years could be among the most momentous for higher education in a generation. The reason is clear: Societal demand for talent is growing rapidly, but our current pace does not allow us to meet that demand. This shortcoming will exact a terrible cost on our collective well-being.
In our increasingly complex and global society, learning—college-level learning—is no longer merely a plus; it’s a must.
Labor experts project that by the end of the decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. Right now, less than 40 percent of the working-age population has at least an associate degree.
What this degree gap really reflects is a persistent and pernicious equity gap, one that belies this country’s historic commitment to opportunity.
Among 24-year-olds in the highest income quartile, almost four out of five have a four-year college degree, compared with only one in 10 in the lowest income quartile. Unless we believe that talent is defined by skin color or the wealth of the family into which you are born, it is clear we are throwing away enormous amounts of the human capital our country needs to remain competitive.
These troubling gaps in educational attainment aren’t new; they’ve endured for decades, to the detriment of millions of individuals and families. Today, however, the consequences of unequal opportunity are more dire than ever. Since the beginning of the recent recession and through the past two years of weak recovery, the number of jobs available to high school graduates has plummeted. Nearly four out of five jobs destroyed by the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less; those workers have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery. Almost all of the recent job growth has been for those with college credentials. In this restructured economy, unlike in past decades, a high school diploma (or less) is nothing more than a ticket to working poor status.
And yet, the drive to increase college attainment isn’t important solely because it empowers individuals. A well-educated populace is vital to the economic progress and social stability of the entire nation. A more educated population drives a more productive economy (which, in turn, generates more jobs) and is more engaged in supporting a vital democracy: more voting and volunteering, a greater appreciation for diversity and global awareness, and a higher quality of life.
That’s why our urgent, shared task is to boost college success among all Americans. To reach what we at Lumina call Goal 2025—that is, to ensure that 60 percent of Americans have a high-quality degree, certificate, or other postsecondary credential by 2025—the nation will have to produce an additional 23 million credentials beyond what we would produce at current rates. This is a gap that the current higher education system simply cannot close.
It’s not just a capacity issue. Even if it were possible simply to “super-size” the current system, we’d still fall short. That’s because the problem isn’t just about scale; it’s about structure. The fact is that higher education needs to operate in new ways. It needs to be redesigned so that it better meets the needs of today’s students and positions the nation for success in our 21st-century global society.
This redesigned system must deliver high-quality education to the growing numbers of low-income, first-generation, minority, and adult students who represent our future as a nation. In other words, higher education must be retooled so that it is both more affordable and more productive.
To enhance productivity, we can’t employ gimmicks, such as cutting investments as a way of demonstrating greater efficiency. Real productivity means substantially increasing the number of high-quality degrees and certificates produced, at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for the least well-served populations.
How will we get there? Greater investment in higher education is desirable, because it signals the enormous public value that is derived from a college-educated population. But given the enormous constraints on both governments and individuals, it is not likely that we will see dramatic increases in investment, even under the most optimistic scenarios.
What this means is near-term progress on productivity that demonstrates the proactive and responsive capacities of the American higher education system. Some of what we will need includes:
A system that provides innovative, simplified, technology-driven ways for students to earn degrees, such as those already taking place at institutions like Rio Salado College in Arizona and Southern New Hampshire University;
A system in which states allocate resources based on performance, along the lines of what is occurring in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and elsewhere;
A system that creates incentives for colleges and universities to support student success, especially for the least well-served populations;
A system that encourages colleges and universities to do all they can to look for and act upon business efficiencies, which generate savings that can be redirected to serving more students; and
A system that uses aid, tuition policy, and other financial incentives to encourage students to finish studies on time.
These four strategies—new delivery models, performance funding, business efficiencies, and student incentives—constitute the basic formula for maximizing productivity in American higher education. Additional details and examples can be found at www.collegeproductivity.org.
Greater productivity in higher education isn’t the only thing needed to help reach our nation’s educational attainment goals. But it’s a key prerequisite in the larger, more urgent effort to fulfill the societal demand for talent through a postsecondary education system where all deserving students gain access to higher education, all are supported until they reach their goals, all get an education that is rigorous and relevant to a modern economy, and ultimately rewarding to all of us.
Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a private foundation based in Indianapolis dedicated to increasing college enrollment and graduation.