Spread the Wealth: Make College Success a National Priority

Jamie P. Merisotis
October 2, 2012

In this year of election wrangling, it’s been tough to find common ground, to identify points of connection where real progress seems possible. And yet, even in today’s hyper-partisan era, there is a basic truth that all can agree on. It’s a truth so fundamental that it can even be expressed mathematically:

Education = opportunity.

This equation has always been valid, of course. Learning has always opened doors, always helped pull Americans out of poverty and put them on the path to better lives. But now, in our increasingly complex and increasingly 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 (ages 25-64) 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. According to 2010 Census figures, only 27 percent of working-age African Americans hold at least an associate degree. Among Latinos, it’s only 19 percent. These gaps are compounded by a decline in education opportunity for low-income groups. Among 24-year-olds in the top income quartile, almost four out of five have a four-year college degree compared with only one in ten in the lowest income quartile. Unless we believe that talent is defined by skin color or family wealth, it is clear we are throwing away enormous amounts of the human capital we need to succeed as a country. 

The consequences of unequal opportunity are more dire than ever. Since the beginning of the recent recession and through the last two years of the weak recovery, the number of jobs for 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—and those workers have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery. Almost all of the job growth has been for those with college credentials.

The drive to increase college attainment isn’t important solely because it empowers individuals. A more educated population produces a more productive economy that generates jobs. It is also a populace that 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 – 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, 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.

Restructuring our higher education system will require institutions and their governing bodies to do all they can to provide new methods of delivering high-quality educational content. Blended courses, open-courseware options, mechanisms to award credit for learning that occurs outside the classroom – all of these methods and many more must be used to open new avenues of success and reduce the time it takes to earn a quality credential.

Higher education institutions and their leaders can also enhance productivity by focusing cost-efficiency efforts – many of which are being mandated at a policy level – on aiding more students, particularly those who are underserved. Financial incentives must be used to enhance productivity as well. Both students and institutions should have a real stake in ensuring timely college completion.

Our entire student financing model is outdated. Today’s tuition and student aid systems were designed decades ago to meet student needs and social and economic conditions that are dramatically different from those we face today. We need a system in which resources are used to support the success of a much larger – and more diverse – population of students.

This newly designed student financing system must meet several criteria. It should help students and families plan earlier and save more for college through financial literacy, asset-building, and savings programs. Grants, loans, and tax credits, particularly at the federal level, should also be incorporated into a common system to support the success of low-income students. In addition, the new system should incorporate new approaches to benefits management, assuring that funds from sources other than financial aid – including income supports such as unemployment insurance and workforce development funds – are leveraged to support college attainment.

Finally, the system should feature strong incentives for students to complete their studies as rapidly as possible, and rewards to encourage employers to dramatically increase their support for workers’ postsecondary attainment.

These proposed changes all have one aim—to increase college attainment and spread the considerable benefits of postsecondary education as broadly as possible.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation.

 

This commentary was originally published on Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity. It is reprinted here with permission.


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