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In his first address to a joint session of Congress five years ago, President Obama established an important – and some would argue, audacious – goal for our nation: “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

Donald E. Heller
Donald E. Heller

Though meeting this goal this would be a great achievement with positive economic benefits, it is unlikely that we will meet the President’s goal and catch the other leading countries by 2020.

The link between educational attainment and economic growth is well documented. In general, as countries increase the average level of education attained by their citizens, the stronger and more competitive their economies become.

Related: Looking to the rest of the world

However, little has changed in the ensuing five years since President Obama established this goal. The U.S. rate has crept up, less than a percentage point per year, but other countries are not standing still. Unfortunately, the audaciousness of the goal is borne out by the facts. When Obama established this goal, just over 40 percent of Americans above the age of 25 had some form of postsecondary degree. Other countries, however, were far ahead of the United States. Half of Canadian adults, for example, had a college degree.  In Japan, it was 44 percent; Israel, 45 percent.

This does not mean, however, that we should not continue to take steps to ensure more Americans enroll in and successfully complete college. To do so will require a partnership between multiple entities, including K-12 educational institutions across the country, the states, the federal government, and colleges and universities. And it is important to remember that “college” does not mean only a bachelor’s degree.  There are many community college degrees and certificates that carry real value in labor markets and allow people to earn a decent living.

Related: Can universities be embarrassed into raising graduation rates?

Here’s what each entity needs to do to help increase the rate of postsecondary attainment in the country:

  • K-12 schools: Our nation’s elementary and secondary schools need to ensure that all students are provided with an opportunity to graduate from high school and be career or college ready.  This means they need to be prepared to do college-level coursework, and not get mired in remedial courses that often carry no college-level credit and become a dead end toward completing a degree or certificate.  Data from Complete College America show that 52 percent of community colleges students and 20 percent of those in four-year institutions took at least one remedial course.  These numbers need to be reduced so students are enrolled in credit-bearing courses, and the way to do this is to improve the quality of K-12 education.
  • State governments: States need to ensure that both K-12 and higher education are adequately funded.  We want students who can graduate high school prepared for lifelong learning and/or careers.  State governments need to remain committed to higher education so a college degree remains affordable for all students.  State-funded scholarships need to be targeted at those students with financial need, and, should not be used to reward students who had the advantages of coming from wealthier families and attending better schools.
  • Federal government: Congress and the administration need to ensure that there is adequate financial aid so that a college education can stay within the reach of all families.  The maximum Pell Grant, the nation’s most highly-targeted, large-scale grant program, should be increased to returning its purchasing power to the highs it reached three decades ago, when it covered more than three-quarters of the cost of attendance at public universities.  The Obama administration’s efforts to make income-based repayment of student loans available to more students is also an important step toward improving college affordability.
  • Colleges and universities: Higher education institutions play an important role as well.  They must strive to keep their costs down, to be able to reduce the growth rate of tuition prices, which has averaged more than twice the inflation rate for over three decades.  They must also ensure that they are providing an adequate education to all students, including those who are well prepared coming out of high school as well as those with weaker preparation.  And they must ensure that their scholarship aid is focused on the most financially needy students.

Related: High schools may have to pay for unprepared graduates

All of these partners are necessary for us to increase the proportion of Americans who have a college degree or certificate. No one group can accomplish this goal on its own. If we all pull together, only then will our nation have a chance to close ground with other countries which are increasing investment in the education of their citizens, and allow us increase our global competitiveness. The question becomes, can we all pull together?

Donald E. Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.  

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