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Access And Degree Completion Problems In Higher Education

September 11, 2006

Late last week the New York Times ran an article on U.S. students increasingly not finishing college. It was authored by Tamar Lewin, and titled “Report Finds U.S. Students Lagging in Finishing College.” Here are some highlights:

– The United States, long the world leader in higher education, has fallen behind other nations in its college enrollment and completion rates, as the affordability of American colleges and universities has declined, according to a new report. The study, from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, found that although the United States still leads the world in the proportion of 35- to 64-year-olds with college degrees, it ranks seventh among developed nations for 25- to 34-year-olds. On rates of college completion, the United States is in the lower half of developed nations. ‘Completion is the Achilles’ heel of American higher education,’ said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center. . . . Younger Americans — the most diverse generation in the nation’s history — are lagging educationally, compared with the baby boom generation. ‘The strength of America is in the population that’s closest to retirement, while the strength of many countries against whom we compare ourselves is in their younger population,’ he said. ‘Perhaps for the first time in our history, the next generation will be less educated.'”
– “The United States’ higher education performance has stalled since the early 1990s.”
– “At the same time, for most American families, college is becoming increasingly unaffordable. While federal Pell grants for low-income students covered 70 percent of the cost of a year at a four-year public university in the 1990’s, Mr. Callan said, that has dropped to less than half.”
– “The report, which grades the states on how well they compare with the state with the best record, gives 43 states, including New York and Connecticut, an F for affordability. New Jersey got a D. On average, a year at a public four-year university costs 31 percent of a family’s income, the report said. But that figure hides the enormous difference between families in the bottom 20 percent of income, for which it would be 73 percent of annual income, and those in the top 20 percent, for which it would amount to only 9 percent.”
– “The report . . . paints a picture of an income-stratified society, with a huge educational gap between low- and high-income young adults. In 12 states, the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds from high-income families who are enrolled in college is at least twice as great as those from low-income families; in five states, the high-income students are at least three times as likely to be in college.”

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The advertised topic in the article’s headline, degree completion rates, is covered in only the first three or four sentences. The rest is dedicated to discussing general problems and trends in higher education. All the news is troubling.

The Pell Grant situation is very disturbing. Our society seems to think, more and more, that nothing can be merely “given” away. Providing grants to underprivileged students, however, is not a gift or an entitlement that should be subject to differing political whims. Education grants are an investment: no other term ought to be substituted or allowed when talking about this subject. It seems that the only thing that will ensure getting maximum participation in higher education is taking a K-16 view of the education matrix.

The disparity in degree attainment between older and younger Americans concerns me a great deal – in a long-range, low-level anxiety fashion. Before reading this piece I certainly wasn’t explicitly aware of this difference. I hate to descend into simple alarmism, but if this is true for any substantial period, well, our country’s future political stability and competitive advantage – built by the present education establishment – will have been sacrificed for the present. In twenty-five years we will be well into a domestic and international decline, having paid the price for under-paying education professions at the elementary and secondary level. It is no wonder that education reform is a perennial topic in American education history (see any number of recent graduate-level textbooks on the history of education for this). If mantras of reform are what it takes to get America’s attention, then calls for reform should continue and be renewed.

The classroom effects of income stratification on higher education are particularly disconcerting. Having taught at both the community colleges and private higher education institutions here in Chicago, I have first-hand experience with the types of students at both. The differences in mental and material preparation for first-year students in both kinds of institutions are stark. Of course differences should exist due to their respective missions, but I don’t know that they should be so drastic. The best students at both are not too different, but the worst students at community colleges are really in bad shape (per a long Sept. 4 post here). – TL

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