Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 6: What We Need to Do - Working Backward from Desired Outcomes

So let’s take stock of where we stand. About 32 percent of the American adult population (36 percent of the workforce) has at least a bachelor’s degree, and that percentage has been increasing steadily since 1960, growing by about 0.5 percent per year. But according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce [1], our economy needs more than 70 percent of the workforce to be educated at the bachelor’s degree or greater. At the current rate of growth, it will take us more than 70 years to hit that target. That is, we’ll be just where we need to be by about 2090 — much too late to be of any use.

We are dealing with a set of paradoxes, and a quandary. It is a paradox that never in the history of our nation have we enjoyed such a high level of educational attainment, and yet never before has our level of educational attainment been so far below what we need it to be. Similarly, we have never before seen such a tight and powerful connection between having a college degree and individual economic success — and yet, in proportion to the size of our stagnant median family income, never has the cost of access to institutions of higher education been greater.

Our system of higher education works well for those whose families are themselves college educated, but it is not easily accessed by those who are prospective first-generation college students. Finally, we do a far better job of providing a college education to traditional-age students, particularly if they are full-time and academically well-prepared, than we do to part-time, academically weak students (especially if they require “remediation”) — and we generally do a terrible job at creating access to a college education for working adults.

The result of this chronic bifurcation of outcomes is an America that is increasingly divided between those who, from an economic perspective, are thriving, and those who are struggling, or even failing. This growing economic divide polarizes us in other ways as well: in terms of health and quality of life; in terms of reliance on (or independence from) various parts of the social safety net; and in terms of our politics and world view. [2]

The quandary is: How do we resolve all these paradoxes that continue to thwart not only our efforts to strengthen the economy but also our desire for a more just and equitable society?

It’s not for lack of vision or intent. Most states now have higher education attainment goals that anticipate that between 55 and 65 percent of their adult population will have a degree or high-value certificate, to be realized by the middle of the next decade. But few states have developed actual plans to achieve these goals.

In the meantime, too many young people with too little education create a drag on economic growth. [3] This point was reinforced by a recent comprehensive federal survey of high school graduates revealing that of the 28 percent who had not enrolled in any post-secondary program, more than four in 10 earned less than $10,000 in 2015. [4]

What must happen to get us from where we are today to where we need to be?

As is true for infrastructure in general, the infrastructure supporting education in this country functions to maintain the status quo — and this is a critical point. If there is a desire is to change the status quo in almost anything — certainly including educational attainment — then it necessarily follows that the first step must be to change the infrastructure. This seems obvious, but we continue to believe that by making a few tweaks in whatever represents the current infrastructure, we will somehow create a dramatically different outcome.

Our best approach, therefore, is to identify the outcomes we wish and then work backward to create the infrastructure to achieve those outcomes. [5]

In building a new higher education infrastructure, our primary concern should be to eliminate the obstacles that make college graduation such a challenge for low-income and/or students from underrepresented groups at present. Relatively affluent and academically strong white students who attend college on a full-time basis graduate at the rate of 74 percent; [6] the target for minority and/or low-income students should be no less. However, at present differences in educational outcomes by category are common and will not be easy challenges to overcome. For example, the graduation rate of students receiving Pell Grants (yearly household incomes less than $50,000) is currently 7 percent below non-Pell students. [7]

Programmatically, we must identify action steps that would increase both the participation and the graduation rates of currently underrepresented students. The good news is that there are many opportunities for improvement. For example, nationally, only 67 percent of freshman students return for their sophomore year. [8] It is unacceptable for higher education — so vital a component of our society — to lose one-third of its numbers every single year.

Here are a few things that could be done to improve this statistic:

  • Assign all incoming students in groups of no more than 20 to educational mentoring teams consisting of a faculty member, a member of the student support staff, and one or two upperclassmen. The specified goal: supporting and mentoring each member of the cohort by connecting them to the college community (so they begin thinking of themselves as belonging to the college “family”) and helping them overcome any emotional and psychological challenges they may have relative to moving from high school to college, generally without their family support system conveniently in place. It is in no one’s interest to have students fail at the outset because we choose to withhold the support and encouragement they needed to be successful during their critical first semester.
  • Some students would benefit from a trial run at college. Colleges should create an option for incoming freshmen to participate in a six-week on-campus summer program, where they would acclimate to student life before their freshman year actually begins, during which time they could also earn six credits of coursework and get a head start on their college career. For good or ill, many students are traumatized by the notion of being away from home and attending college. The point shouldn’t be to make them feel inadequate, but to support them as they are take a very big first step toward independent adulthood.
  • Students are normally assigned a faculty adviser at or near the beginning of their freshman year, but “advising” is second only to parking as a source of student complaints. Faculty generally do a fine job of assisting students with course selection, especially in the major. But at the very beginning of their college careers, what students most need is someone in whom they can confide, in whom they trust, who they feel has their interests very much at heart. And not all faculty have the time or the training to play that role, especially for first-year students who may not yet have selected a major. Instead, we need to think about augmenting course advising with a different type of advising, wherein trained members of the staff take on a distinct  mentorship responsibility for freshman students in particular. [9] We should think of these individuals more as guides than traditional advisers, augmenting and not replacing the work of faculty advisers. These compassionate and caring people would provide guidance and assistance to first-year students who too often see a speed bump as the equivalent of the Andes: impossibly challenging, and a reason to turn and flee.
  • We have to think about the cost of attending college as inclusive of more than just tuition and fees. Food insecurity is a big issue for a significant number of students [10], and child care costs can be prohibitive for single mothers trying to obtain a college education [11]. Expanding the scope and size of Pell Grants would be an obvious first step. The SEEK program at the City University of New York has been around for 50 years and has helped more than 400,000 students dramatically improve their educational outcomes for a cost of less than $3,000 per year per student. [12] The Career Pathways Initiative, using federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds, has shown for a decade how Arkansas has achieved far better educational outcomes. [13] Or try something truly radical: Pay students to be students, in recognition of the fact that being a full-time student is, in effect, their job. [14] They are more likely to persist if they are being paid.
  • Finally, we need to be mindful that students need to see people who look like them, who can be role models with whom they can feel an affinity. That’s why the faculty and staff need to be as diverse as the student body, such that a young Latina may reasonably expect to see an older version of herself at the front of the classroom, or as her adviser. And that’s why a trans student, or a bisexual student, should never wonder if he or she is somehow unique on the campus, but instead is invited to become a part of a supportive system for students, staff and faculty of like orientation.

Programs like these exist now at various universities and colleges, generally in bits and pieces, but they haven’t yet become commonplace on most campuses. Partly it’s a question of expense, but there is a strong underlying sentiment at many schools that higher education is all about self-reliance, and that too much “hand-holding” somehow makes ignoble the process of becoming a college graduate.

To which I say: Baloney!

The fact is that retention and graduation rates at far too many colleges and universities continue to be abysmal, and there is no indication that minor adjustments in the system here and there will change the outcomes in any significant way. Our objective should be to retain and graduate every student we admit, and while I will quickly acknowledge that to be an impossibly high standard, we shouldn’t accept as inevitable that a significant number of students must fail to demonstrate that the education of those who survive means something.

We know how to do better; we simply need to resolve to implement the strategies and practices that will make us better.

Adult Learners

“Adult learners” are defined as those 25 years and older who have not been continuously enrolled in higher education. As I noted previously, 32 percent of adult Americans have either a bachelor’s degree (20.4 percent) or a graduate or professional degree (11.6 percent). But almost as many adult Americans have some college, including an associate’s degree (9 percent), a high-value certificate (4.9 percent) or post-high school credits but no degree or certificate (16.2 percent).

If the “some college” population of adults could be transformed into graduates at the bachelor’s level, we would very quickly almost double our current numbers of college graduates. For various reasons, that’s not a practical goal. But the point is the pool of such people is huge, and even limited success would be transformational for the American economy.

Higher education institutions were initially created to serve newly minted high school graduates who attended college on a full-time basis, often lived in residence and graduated by the age of 22 or so after accumulating at least 120 credits, mostly earned on a “seat time” basis. (To this day, the coin of the educational realm is the Carnegie unit, defined as 15 hours of contact time, generally in a classroom. A typical three-unit course therefore requires 45 hours of contact time — three hours per week for a 15-week semester.)

Even today, most colleges or universities are ill-designed to serve adult learners, who rarely have the option of being a full-time student, for whom work and/or family obligations preclude their being in residence, and for whom 45 hours of in-class seat time to earn three credits is a luxury few can afford.

New models of education, focused on the demonstrated acquisition of specified skills and capabilities (so-called “competency-based learning”), aided by the use of technology and individualized for each student, show the promise of moving adult learners far more quickly along the educational continuum than is true for the usual “seat time” undergraduate. [15] The federal Department of Education has been slow to endorse these models, in large measure because of legitimate concerns that they may open the door to fraud (claims of learning unsubstantiated by any real demonstration of learning, all while relying on Pell grants and subsidized student loans). However, the Department of Education has begun approving a few models, and, should these models prove successful, they will undoubtedly become far more widespread.

The question is: How many current colleges and universities will see the need or take the opportunity to adopt them, since they present a very different educational methodology that some current faculty, staff and administrators may well find threatening to their sense of what a college education should represent? It will be interesting to see if campus traditions trump national economic needs.

For-profit institutions will have no such compunctions, but it would be a tragic mistake for traditional higher education to leave adult learners to the tender mercies of the for-profits.

In summary, it is not at all difficult to imagine a different infrastructure — manifesting a different philosophy of what undergraduate education should represent — being constructed to support much greater inclusion and success for traditional-age students. We already know how to do this. We lack only the will to implement the support programs.

Similarly, traditional higher education has all but ignored adult learners. The doorways of opportunity, such as they are, for adult learners would require the skills of an experienced contortionist to move through, yet we clearly have the capability of constructing learning environments designed to meet their specific needs.

But we choose not to do so.

Let’s hope that the health of the American economy matters enough to motivate higher education institutions to accept the twin challenges of increasing retention and graduation rates of a demographically shifting population of traditional-age students — and to create effective learning environments for adult learners, with the ultimate objective of doubling the percentage of adult Americans with at least a four-year degree.

Next time: We have the skill, but do we have the will?

[1] “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots,” 2016

[2] “Three things to consider about increasing access to higher education,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 17, 2017. (The author, Dan Greenstein, was until recently the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

[3] “Millions of young adults have entered the workforce with no more than a high school diploma,” Brookings, Jan. 31, 2018

[4] “Study: 72 percent of ninth graders have some postsecondary education within seven years,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2, 2018

[5] An example of the kinds of outcomes we should be seeking to implement are found in a recent comprehensive report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (“The Future of Undergraduate Education,” November, 2017) that focuses on three major priorities: strengthening the student experience; increasing completion rates and reducing inequities; and controlling costs and increasing affordability. Achieving those priorities can only be achieved through substantial changes to the higher education infrastructure.

[6] Website of the National Center for Education Statistics.

[7] “A look at Pell Grant recipients’ graduation rates,” Brookings, Oct. 25, 2017

[8] “What college freshman retention rates miss when measuring student success,” University Business, Dec. 21, 2017

[9] “Can Colleges Engineer Relationships?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 19, 2018

[10] “It’s Hard to Study if You’re Hungry,” The New York Times, Jan. 14, 2018. Governors Brown (CA) and Cuomo (NY) have both addressed this issue in their most recent budget proposals.

[11] “What College is Like as a Single Mother,” The Atlantic, Jan. 16, 2018

[12] “These colleges turn low-income students into middle-class learners—but how?” Hechinger Report, Feb. 5, 2018

[13] “The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative,” College Counts website

[14] “Students should be paid to study,” Huffington Post, Jan. 13, 2018

[15] One such example is the online program College for America, developed by Southern New Hampshire University.

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