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More than three years after President Barack Obama called on them to increase the number of Americans with degrees, public colleges and universities today announced a plan to turn out more graduates—though not as many as the nation needs to return to its status as the world’s most educated nation, not by the president’s deadline, and with the caveat that states and the federal government maintain or increase financial support.
Nearly 500 four-year public institutions signed the pledge to collectively raise the number of graduates produced by 3.8 million by 2025, saying it would help boost the proportion of adults with two- or four-year degrees to the 60 percent projected to be needed to fill jobs in the knowledge economy. Today that proportion is stuck at 39 percent, and the United States has fallen from first to 16th in the world in this measure.
“This initiative is an economic competitiveness imperative for the future of the country,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, whose members, along with members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, are among those promising to turn out more graduates.
But the president’s goal was to increase the number of graduates by five million by 2020. And the Lumina Foundation, which has been pushing to increase the number of degree-holders, estimates that the nation must produce 23 million more college and university graduates than it is now in order to reach the 60 percent goal by 2025.
The universities’ promise is a start, especially since degree attainment has barely budged since the president and various foundations made it a priority in 2009. Public universities are also only part of a higher-education system that also includes community colleges and private colleges and universities.
“This new commitment by the public universities and colleges will go a long way” toward the goal, said Business Roundtable President John Engler.
One way the universities plan to do this is to reach out to former students who quit school only a few credits short of their degrees. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, citing research from 2003, reports that about 300,000 students from each year’s entering class fall within this category.
They also pledged to hold costs down, saying that double-digit increases in tuition have been forced on them by state budget cuts. The universities said they would try to reduce the time it takes for students to get their degrees, too, and work with primary and secondary schools and community colleges to make sure entering students arrive better prepared, especially in science, technology, engineering and math.
For them to do all this, the universities said, requires states to “provide sufficient appropriations to support students and the discovery of new knowledge.” They also called on the federal government to maintain its multibillion-dollar commitment to student financial aid and for research. But they conceded that the institutions themselves will have to become more efficient.