The United States is on a collision course with disaster. Unless we change our current model of higher education, our country will never have the educated workforce it needs to support and grow its economy.
A 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, of the 11.6 million new jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession, 8.3 million (73 percent) required a four-year degree — powerful evidence that we are continuing the transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Yet a 2017 report from the Lumina Foundation showed that only about 32 percent of American adults have a four-year or graduate degree — a percentage that has changed little in the past decade. In the absence of a sufficient supply of college graduates, how can American business and industry grow? And if American business and industry does not grow, how can the American economy expand?
Don’t assume that the law of supply and demand will take care of this problem. That’s not the appropriate model when it comes to higher education because, overwhelmingly, individual institutions of higher education are focused more on maintaining, and if possible enhancing, their own reputation than they are on producing more graduates. In other words, their obsession with quality (often equated with ranking) eclipses society’s need for quantity — a statement supported by findings from a just-released New America survey of 1,600 American adults (“Varying Degrees”).
This obsession manifests itself in two distinct ways, both of which hurt the American economy. First, almost all four-year colleges and universities seek to admit the very best high school graduates they are able to recruit — with “best” being those with the highest GPAs and test scores, ideally from high schools with reputations for being strong academically. Because the publications that rank colleges and universities use, as one criterion, the percentage of college freshmen at a given college who are in the top 10 percent, or 25 percent, of their high school graduating class, these are the students most in demand. But if the American economy needs 70 percent of its workers with a four-year degree, which are the colleges willing to take students from the bottom half of their high school class? The answer is that these students have few college options and, for the most part, those options are unattractive. Colleges prove their worth and enhance their reputations by being exclusive — not inclusive.
Second, the emphasis on “quality” creates a grading system that ensures some number of college students must fall short of an instructor’s expectations, and falling short in enough courses causes the student to leave without graduating. The four-year graduation rate of less selective colleges is often below 20 percent — just one in five receives the degree on time, and the six-year graduation rate is commonly below 40 percent.
How can this model be changed to meet today’s societal needs? Here are three answers:
- Colleges and universities must dramatically increase their graduation rates. It is unconscionable that there are institutions graduating less than 20 percent of the freshmen they admitted four years earlier. These low graduation rates are a national disgrace, and the American public should demand better. As a nation, we literally cannot afford to have half of each entering class of students failing to graduate within six years (“half” being the national average graduation rate across all higher education sectors). What other business or industry could survive if half of its input never made it out the door as marketable product?
Too many institutions of higher education continue to miss the point of their mandate. A college education should not be seen as the civilian equivalent of Army Ranger School, where a majority of would-be Rangers are expected to wash out. Colleges choose who they admit — and by choosing in this way, they establish what might be seen as a quasi-contractual relationship with their students to do everything in their power to help them achieve their educational aims. Instead, too many institutions still act more as judges than as advocates; more as inquisitors than mentors; more as auditors than as teachers. And when students fall short of expectations, the conclusion is that they are poor learners, not that the institution is doing a poor job of teaching.
The response to these criticisms is, of course, predictable. “Gasp! You would have us lower our standards of quality in order to give students outcomes they neither earned nor deserve!” To which I respond: Nonsense! We can provide far more guidance and assistance to students without in any way compromising the expectations we have of what and how they learn. We can enliven in-class and out-of-class instruction to make learning far more interesting. We can move away from counting the hours a student must spend in a classroom to earn three credits, and move towards a direct assessment of the learning outcomes we have for the course. These changes are all within our reach and ability, yet for the most part we ignore them — because there is not yet sufficient pressure and expectation for us to change the standard model.
Suppose the regional accreditors (or the federal government) set an outcome standard of, say, 75 percent graduation in four years of all full-time students (those taking 15 or more credits each semester). Institutions failing to meet that standard would be placed on probation by their accreditors or lose some portion of federal funding. Does anyone seriously believe that we would not immediately see far greater attention being paid to successful student learning? Why should it take the threat of penalties to motivate colleges and universities to do a better job of graduating their students?
- Lower income students must be given significantly greater opportunity and support. Institutions of higher learning do a respectable job with students from the top quarter of family income, many of whom have college-educated parents, and almost all of whom are the product of quite good K-12 school systems. About 77 percent of students in this income bracket will ultimately earn a four-year degree.
However, colleges and universities have had much less success with students from the bottom quarter of family income, only 9 percent of whom will earn a four-year degree. If the United States is to see a significant increase in the percentage of adults with a four-year degree, we must work to make students from the bottom quarter of family income more successful.
Creating greater access and better educational outcomes for low-income students is not an insurmountable problem; we’re just choosing not to address it.
Many of these students did not attend high quality K-12 schools; most will be first-generation college students; they may or may not receive moral support from their families; they are generally unfamiliar with how colleges operate, and often feel out-of-place trying to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. By providing them with educational “coaches” — individuals dedicated to helping them in every facet of their lives — a few institutions have seen dramatic increases in retention and graduation. This model should be the norm, not the exception.
And we have to stop punishing people just for being poor. Low-income families tend to live in areas where the K-12 school system is often terrible; where the neighborhood is often dangerous; where families routinely confront food and housing insecurity, and move frequently, often disrupting the children’s education. Then, when the children finish high school, too often their only educational option is a community college, where funding on a per-student basis is far lower than at state colleges and universities, to say nothing of most non-profit private institutions. And we wonder why low-income students are one-eighth as likely to earn a four-year degree as are high-income students, who overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities that are far better funded on a per-student basis?
Why does our society find it in any way acceptable to provide the most financial support for those who need it least (students from the top quarter of family incomes), and to provide the least financial support for those who need it most (students from the bottom quarter of family incomes)?
- A new educational model is needed for working adults who require additional skills, or who want to complete their undergraduate degree. There are literally millions of American adults who have more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. Virtually all of them would be economically better off with a four-year degree, and surveys find that about 75 percent of them would very much like to have a four-year degree. But the opportunity to do so is just not available.
The traditional model for a college degree requires four years of full-time study, typically in residence. This model is all but useless for a working adult who cannot give up employment to attend college, and whose time is limited by job and family responsibilities. Not-for-profit higher education has been painfully slow to respond to this need, a fact that provided the opportunity for for-profit institutions to enter the market and develop what can most charitably be described as a “mixed” record.
America’s need for a far better-educated workforce cannot be met simply by enrolling more high school graduates. We must also develop new methodologies to serve working adults, who neither need nor want a “seat time” education (that is, one based on the input of how many hours a person spends in a lecture hall to earn a college credit). Rather, they need to earn credits based on the output of academic competencies achieved. This model is moving with glacial slowness in the world of traditional higher education; change has to happen far more quickly, in order that the educational needs of millions of adult Americans can be met, and in order that we can create the larger pool of college-educated workers that our economy so desperately needs.
Accomplishing even one of these three changes will be challenging. Achieving all three may seem impossible. Yet while there is a real sense of urgency on the part of both the American public and the American economy, it is not necessary that all of higher education responds overnight. It is enough that some institutions, public or private, decide that there are certain actions that they can take that will address these three changes. And they can do so while still protecting their ranking:
- Programs for adults can be developed in such a way that they will not interfere with the current college ranking system, which is based on measures relating only to first-time, full-time freshmen.
- Working to increase graduation rates will help an institution’s ranking, because graduation rate is an important criterion in the ranking process.
- Creating access for low-income students, on the other hand, may affect an institution’s ranking (because these students generally score lower on standardized tests and on high school GPA), but these institutions will have to ask themselves whether they exist solely for the purpose of establishing a high ranking for themselves, or whether their more fundamental purpose is to meet the needs American society has of them.
As even a few institutions respond to one or more of these needs, they will demonstrate that so much of what we think of as being fundamental and ingrained in higher education is, in fact, a product of the model we are using — and that model can be changed. Indeed, it must be changed, if America’s economic strength is not to be undermined in the coming decades by an educationally ill-prepared workforce. Higher education needs to hold itself accountable in ensuring that this gloomy forecast does not actually occur. And the first step in being accountable is to adopt inclusivity — not exclusivity — as higher education’s watchword.