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When then-President Barack Obama stood before a friendly and enthusiastic crowd at Macomb Community College, near Detroit, 10 years ago this year, the goals he set out were — as the president himself said — historic.
Within a decade, he said on that day in 2009, community colleges like Macomb would collectively boost their number of graduates by five million. That would help return the United States to first in the world in the proportion of its population with the credentials needed to sustain an economy increasingly dependent on highly educated workers.
“Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result,” Obama said in announcing his American Graduation Initiative.
Now it’s 2019, and after federal and state budget cuts, spiraling tuition, political distraction and increasing public skepticism about the value of a higher education, the nation is far behind schedule in realizing this goal.
Obama called for raising to 60 percent the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees or certificates by next year; that number has instead crawled from about 39 percent to just under 48 percent. At this rate, the target won’t be met until at least 2041, the research arm of the nonprofit Educational Testing Service, or ETS, predicts.
It will take until at least 2056 for 60 percent of all working-age Americans — not just 25- to 34-year-olds —to have college educations of some kind, ETS calculates. That’s the separate goal set out by the Lumina Foundation to achieve by 2025.
And the United States remains stubbornly in 13th place in the world in the proportion of its 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, behind South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway and other countries.
The repercussions of this could be as enormous as they have been overlooked, said Ted Mitchell, who was Obama’s undersecretary of education overseeing higher education.
“The polar icecap we’re seeing melting in higher education is right in front of us,” said Mitchell, who now is president of the largest national association of colleges and universities, the American Council on Education, and who compared the situation to the slow-moving impacts of changes in environmental policies.
“The real downside comes in 10 years or 20 years, when this incredible human capital engine that has fueled our economy over the last century starts to sputter,” he said.
It might not even take that long. Forty-six percent of American employers already can’t find the workers they need, according to ManpowerGroup. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says this is keeping 40 percent of businesses from taking on more work.
“That suggests that this is hindering growth,” said Cheryl Oldham, the chamber’s vice president of education policy and the former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the George W. Bush administration, who remembers efforts to raise the proportion of Americans with degrees even before Obama tried to do it.
“We make a big announcement, we make a promise, then we move onto something else,” Oldham said.
The Trump Administration Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests to discuss this topic, and references to the American Graduation Initiative have been deleted from the White House website.
To produce more graduates, colleges first need students. But the number of students on the path to degrees is not up. It’s down.
Community colleges, which were the focus of the American Graduation Initiative, have in the last 10 years lost nearly 20 percent of their enrollment, the U.S. Department of Education reports. At Macomb Community College, Obama’s backdrop for his announcement, the number has students has fallen by more than 10 percent, state and college figures show.
That’s partly because the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who comprise traditional college students is declining, even as an improving economy has drawn more people straight into the job market, without stopping to get degrees.
But federal and state budget cuts for higher education also haven’t matched the aspirations of ambitious targets like Obama’s; most of the $12 billion he promised to help community colleges fell through, and states are spending an inflation-adjusted $7 billion less on public universities and colleges than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s a cut of 16 percent, on average, pushing up tuition faster than family incomes, and fueling public skepticism about whether college is worth the cost.
In 2009, said Mitchell, “There was the supposition that as the economy recovered, states would reinvest in higher education. And for the most part, that has not happened. In many states it’s going in the wrong direction.”
Three out of four community college leaders said in a survey by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama that plans do not exist in their states to pay for increasing the number of adults with certificates and associate degrees
“It hasn’t gone fast enough and the urgency of the problem is growing,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, which has made the cause of increasing the proportion of the population with certificates or degrees a central purpose. (Lumina is a funder of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
“The frustration is that our international competitors are getting better, the world is changing and we’re not able to keep pace with that,” Merisotis said. “The consequences are a slowdown of economic and social progress. It’s growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. If talent is at a premium, the people who don’t have talent are going to fall farther behind.”
Even Americans who have college degrees and good jobs will be affected by this problem, and not only because the nation may eventually cede its economic advantages to other countries that are moving more quickly to educate their populations.
With the supply of college-age whites steadily falling, while the number of college-age Hispanics will more than double nationwide by 2060, according to the Census Bureau, for example, research at the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University shows that, if the number of Hispanics graduating from college doesn’t pick up, there will be too few workers to replace retiring baby boomers in the knowledge economy. That will drag down consumer spending and tax revenue and increase poverty rates, it says. Annual household incomes for all Americans would drop
Need a nurse? The proportion with bachelor’s degrees is up from 44 percent to 57 percent since 2004, but still far short of the goal of reaching 80 percent by next year set by the Institute of Medicine to deal with the increasing complexity of healthcare, according to a study by the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing.
Progress toward these objectives varies by region. Forty-two states have their own goals, and some are on track to reach them, or report that they’re ahead of schedule. Tennessee, for example, which famously made its community colleges free, is on target to have 55 percent of its residents possess certificates or degrees two years ahead of the 2025 deadline, outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam said in his final state of the state address
“Why haven’t other states had the same growth?” asked Haslam, a Republican. “Every other state has compromised on core principals that prove to make a difference.”
A record number of Virginians earned bachelor’s degrees in 2017, the most recent year for which the figures are available; officials said that puts it on course toward a goal of having the highest proportion of college-educated workers by 2030.
Other states are behind, however, and some have pushed back their target dates for raising their proportion of degree-holders; even while publicly raising alarms about a shortage of skilled workers, all but four — California, Hawaii, North Dakota and Wyoming — have simultaneously cut their higher education budgets
Rhode Island, for example, projects that it will fall short by 90,000 graduates of its goal of having 70 percent of residents with a degree or certificate by 2025; today 47 percent do, while 70 percent of jobs are projected to require them. Rhode Island has cut higher education spending by nearly 13 percent in the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation.
Iowa is a case study of why so many places are falling behind. Though it estimates that 68 percent of jobs will require college educations by 2025, only 48 percent of Iowans have one now, Lumina reports; reaching the state’s goal of boosting the total to 70 percent will require pushing 150,000 more students per year to and through college. But college enrollment in Iowa is falling, not rising, and is down over the last decade by a daunting 100,000 students.
Even as they’ve fretted over having workers with the skills employers need, politicians in Iowa have cut funding for higher education by an inflation-adjusted $2,528 per student in the last 10 years, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports; public universities and colleges there have raised tuition 19 percent during that time, while spending on state scholarships and grants has fallen every year since 2014.
Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up the fastest-growing proportion of Iowa primary and secondary school students, up from 13 percent in 2005 to 21 percent today.
“We have a supply in our state” of prospective college graduates, said Mark Wiederspan, executive research officer at the Iowa College Student Aid Commission. “The supply is our minority students.”
But black and Hispanic students in particular are not going to or graduating from college at levels anywhere near high enough for states like Iowa or the nation in general to meet its goals, the nonprofit advocacy group The Education Trust reports. The proportion with degrees has barely budged since 2012, from 28 percent to 30 percent for black Americans and 20 percent to 22 percent for Hispanic ones, compared to more than 46 percent for whites.
“You can have a target to increase college-going overall, but without black and Hispanic students, you’re not going to meet” it, said Tiffany Jones, the Education Trust’s director of higher education policy.
“People assume the needle’s going in the right direction. It’s actually going in the wrong direction,” Jones said, citing the fact that black and Hispanic adults still have lower levels of education than whites did 30 years ago. “What’s going to make the real difference is designing policies that actually invest in making colleges more affordable, actually provide support that make students more successful.”
Texas says it will only reach its target of having 60 percent of adults aged 25 to 34 to have degrees or certificates by 2030 by focusing particularly on black and Hispanic students. That is an increase from the current 38 percent, and would require doubling the annual number of graduates by then.
Most states also can’t meet their degree goals without luring back to campus some of the 35 million people over 25 the Census Bureau says began but never finished college. Many have launched marketing campaigns encouraging older adults to re-enroll. But their numbers, too, are plummeting instead of rising.
Former students can be hard to track down, have jobs and families that make it tough for them to find the time and money to come back to college and often aren’t eligible for financial aid. Meanwhile, few institutions offer classes or open offices at nights or on weekends, when working adults can attend. They’ve also been eliminating child care, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“There has to be support for” these students, said Michael Nettles, senior vice president of ETS’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center. “And that has been less clear than the rhetoric around the interest” in recruiting them.
There are some signs of progress.
Those students who do go to college are graduating at slightly higher rates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Fifty-eight percent who started at two- or four-year schools in 2012 had finished six years later. That’s the highest level in the six years that the Clearinghouse has tracked it. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic students who enroll in college are also up.
After years of stagnation or decline, the proportion of low-income students being enrolled by elite universities is also up slightly, the nonprofit American Talent Initiative says.
There’s increasing disagreement over whether Americans necessarily need college degrees to get highly paid work, or can opt for other kinds of educations such as training in coding or skilled trades. If certificates and occupational licenses are included — needed for jobs such as welding and plumbing— the proportion of Americans with educations beyond high school rises to 58 percent, the Education Department says.
More than just “credentials for credentials’ sake,” employers want prospective workers with very particular skills that don’t always require a conventional degree, Oldham said.
Those gaps also could be filled by on-the-job training, apprenticeships and other innovations, said Merisotis.
“We do higher ed over here and then we do workforce stuff over there and maybe there’s another bucket that’s technology stuff,” he said. “Policymakers aren’t seeing all of this as part of the same set of solutions to try to get the country to a higher level of talent.”
In the meantime, Mitchell said, “We need to remember that those goals were always intended to be bold and aggressive. These were not things we were going to be able to just walk to the finish line on.”
And in fact, he said, “They’ve proven “tougher nuts to crack than we imagined.”
This story about the skills gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.