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Success in today’s knowledge and innovation economy depends on education and skills development beyond high school, generally via the completion of a postsecondary education credential. Postsecondary education is correlated with higher personal incomes, productivity increases, economic growth, and increased civic participation and quality of life. And in today’s economy, an effective postsecondary education system is a national competitive advantage. Built on a foundation of student empowerment, adaptable colleges and universities, and enabling public policies, an effective postsecondary education system delivers quality, flexible learning experiences leading to credentials that are a foundation for personal growth and career success.
Yet despite the growing importance of postsecondary education to our economic well being, America is falling behind on this crucial public policy issue. While the proportion of individuals enrolling in college in the United States has grown since the 1970s, the proportion of students receiving diplomas has declined slightly during the same period. Currently, fewer than 60 percent of students entering 4-year institutions earn bachelor’s degrees and barely one-fourth of community college students complete any degree within six years of college entry. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2005, the United States now ranks 10th in the college attainment of its 25- to 34-year-old population, down from 3rd in 1991. The OECD also notes that the United States now has the highest college dropout rate among developed countries.
In addition to the stagnation in degree production, employers are reporting that postsecondary graduates are not ready, with the requisite skills, for their roles in a knowledge-intensive, innovation economy. Technology use and team-based service delivery and practices necessary for innovation are compressing work and learning, requiring that students develop applied skills faster and are able to learn continuously on the job. Employers report that over 40 percent of graduates don’t have the necessary applied skills for success. The transition between work and learning is both an acute and ongoing challenge for today’s students.
What is driving these poor results in higher education? In March 2008, the Center for American Progress held a forum on higher education to explore this question. CAP commissioned six papers to study persistence and success in postsecondary education and convened over 40 policy experts, academics, and government leaders to discuss solutions. This policy agenda is based on the paper findings and proceedings from the forum, CAP’s proposed economic strategy for a new administration—the “Progressive Growth” series—and the extensive work of our education team on K-12 policy issues.
We believe America’s higher education system has a readiness problem. Students are not ready for college, colleges are not ready for students, and public policy, long focused on making college more affordable, is not yet ready to take on the complex challenge of ensuring people successfully complete college degrees and transition into rewarding careers, as opposed to just getting in.
Students, whether because of a lack of academic preparation in high school; a lack of flexible financial tools to meet their education/work/life needs; or a lack of reliable information and support in making wise college decisions, are not ready for college, and wide disparities in readiness exist along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. In short, as customers, America’s students are not now ready to fully and successfully participate in and manage their postsecondary experience.
America’s colleges, in particular its public two- and four-year institutions, are being asked to educate a far more varied group of college goers. Students come to college with widely divergent experiences in secondary schools and are more mobile, older, and more likely to combine work and school than ever before, thus reshaping the demand for postsecondary education with a drive for more customized experiences. With funding decreases and regulations and systems designed to meet a different era’s student needs, postsecondary institutions are not now student ready. As suppliers, postsecondary institutions are not fully ready to deliver quality, flexible education that leads to college and career success.
Lastly, while 40 years and billions of dollars of federal investment in making college more affordable via federal student financial assistance has helped millions of Americans, in particular 18- to 21-year-olds, gain access to college, federal policy has yet to focus sufficient attention on whether those with access actually complete their degrees.
To regain America’s global leadership in postsecondary education, especially among young adults age 25 to 34, the Center for American Progress recommends that federal policy be enhanced with a stronger focus on postsecondary completion and student and college readiness.
- College-ready students are prepared learners and empowered customers with reliable information and support in high school and college and flexible financial assistance, able to design a college experience leading to degree completion and successful education-career transitions.
- Student-ready colleges are those with faculty ready to teach a diverse group of young adults, measure learning outcomes to improve performance, and adapt practices and organizational structures to ensure that all students succeed.
To improve student and college readiness and degree completion, federal leaders must first set a bold goal of increasing the number of young adults with a postsecondary credential to 50 percent in 20 years. Roughly, this means producing 220,000 more degrees than we currently do each year.
This ambitious goal will require us to rethink our business models for postsecondary, secondary, and adult education as well as workforce development. Broadening the pathways students use to get a degree and managing these systems and providers as a network, rather than a pipeline, are the keys to success.
This will require engaging leaders in at the federal, state, and local levels; businesses; unions; two-year and four-year institutions; and community-based organizations across jurisdictions with a focus on creating public value in the form of enhanced human capital.
We can achieve this goal by focusing on the following six readiness strategies:
College-ready student strategies
1. Invest in preparation for college in high school and beyond.
2. Provide more flexible and transparent financial assistance through the federal student aid system.
3. Help develop better and more widely available information about college quality.
Student-ready college strategies
1. Build capacity to help institutions change practices and develop new approaches to improving student success in college.
2. Create more seamless alignment across secondary and postsecondary education and with other systems.
3. Enhance accountability by measuring learning and success in schools and colleges.
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