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President Barack Obama delivers a speech at Macomb County Community College July 14, 2009 in Warren, Michigan. Obama set a goal of increasing the proportion of the population with degrees and certificates, and returning the nation to first in the world in this measure by next year. A decade later, progress has been slow. Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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.

Related: How failing to get more Hispanics to college could drag down all Americans’ income

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.

President Barack Obama called exactly a decade ago for raising to 60 percent the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees or certificates by next year; at current rates, the goal won’t be reached until at least 2041.

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.

Higher education institutions of all kinds have two million fewer students now than they did in 2009.

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.

Related: New data show some colleges are definitively unaffordable for many

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.”

Related: Billions in federal financial aid is going to students who aren’t graduating

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.

A registered nurse speaks with a new mother before her discharge from Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. The proportion of nurses 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. Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

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.”

The United States remains in 13th place in the world in the proportion of its 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees, behind South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia, Ireland, Norway and other countries.

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.

Related: Some colleges extend scholarships and other help to rural high school grads

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.

Harper College, a community college in Illinois working to increase its number of graduates. Credit: Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report

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.

Related: Panicked universities in search of students are adding thousands of new majors

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.

“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.”

“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.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired,

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. It all comes down to money. Stop feeding the military industrial complex and focus on funding our students’ futures. And not just the students going into STEM. High tuition and unsustainable financial add, particularly from the Federal government, it a financial scam. After 5 years of paying a loan, it is still at the original principal. The tax cut for America’s wealthiest and its corporations only makes this situation worse.

  2. All this handwringing about not meeting the 60% college completion goal may have reasons that we haven’t sufficiently explored. For example:
    1. Health care costs are rising so fast that they are sucking up each year larger portions of our federal, state and family budgets. This makes less available for education, especially higher education as state lawmakers try to keep whole their K-12 systems. Among the reasons for higher health care costs are our aging population, our failure to win multiple wars on drugs, out inability to control illegal immigration and the deteriorating health of our children who are among the least healthy in the developed world. Half our high school leavers do not have sufficient physical or mental capacity to serve in our military with many bogged down with chronic diseases including the rapidly increasing rate of neurological disorders and mental health problems.
    2. Colleges continue to increase tuition well beyond the rate of inflation making it increasingly unaffordable.
    3. Our high schools with their century-old industrial era design continue to bore and frustrate a significant percentage of students, especially boys who act out, drop out or tune out. It is not helpful to the economy and polity that women earn 6 in 10 post-secondary awards. Why would disaffected youth want to experience in college the kind of failure or boredom they experienced in high school? Many of our leaders agree that our high schools need a total makeover beyond just providing more STEM or career-technical courses.
    4. With today’s historically low unemployment rates, key industries with labor shortages such as construction and manufacturing are realizing that to expand their businesses and take advantage of the hot economy, they must grow their own workforces. This means employers must be willing to educate and develop workers from the “forgotten half,” that is, the ones who are poor or did not do well in school. Fortunately, employers seem to have a knack for delivering the kinds of hands-on, practical team-oriented training that appeals to older teens and young adults. To pay for such initiatives and sufficiently customize training to meet their needs, employers are establishing stronger relationships with one another as well as with public agencies such as schools, colleges and workforce development agencies. They are discovering that strong public-private partnerships where everybody wins is the way to go.
    5. Political correctness is undermining the willingness of taxpayers and legislators to support higher education to the extent they had. When speakers with conservative views cannot get a respectful hearing on campus; and students massively demonstrate to replace capitalism with socialism; and universities keep raising tuition to bump up the salaries of professors who are 90% left-wing, hard-working Americans look at how socialist governments are doing around the world and ask why should they be paying for such advocacy. In a word, PC is killing the goose that laid the golden egg, and those who foster PC with their intolerance of diverse views are scarcely aware that this is not in their self-interest.
    So, the best way to miss college is to mindlessly pursue the numbers game that is currently in vogue. Instead, quietly back into college credential goals by creating a workforce that can meet the needs of the economy and families at an affordable price, and by re-inventing our high schools through more robust partnerships with employers and community-based organizations and curricula that take into consideration the whole person.

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