(Originally published on LinkedIn)
Each fall, over 17 million students enroll at the more than 4,700 colleges and universities in the U.S. About one-third of these students are over 25 and almost 40% attend part-time. These statistics underscore that we’ve come a long way from the days when a college education was reserved for the social and economic elite.
While we’re not perfect, our nation has made great progress in making higher education more accessible to students of all ages and backgrounds. The key challenge we face today is of educational quality. We must focus on how to provide, at scale, the knowledge and skills that will help students make sense of – and thrive in – a time of great demographic, economic, and technological change.
One of the obstacles to effectively meeting this challenge is the issue of completion.
Far too many students who set out to obtain a post-secondary education fail to complete it. While almost 90 percent of high school graduates will enroll in an undergraduate institution at some point during their young adulthood, only about 60 percent who pursue a bachelor’s degree will actually complete it. The completion rate is even lower – about 30 percent – for those who pursue a certificate or an associate’s degree.
Moreover, completion rates are highly unequal when analyzed by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Women complete their degree programs at higher rates than men. White and Asian students graduate at higher rates than black and Hispanic students. High-income students complete their degrees at higher rates than low-income students. Part-time students complete at much lower rates than full-time students, and students from rural areas lag behind their urban peers.
These disparities mirror and reinforce other social inequities, and they are an obstacle to social progress.
Cost and affordability are also significant issues. Student debt is a growing challenge for our nation, but it’s particularly problematic for students who do not complete their degrees. Many of them are unable to pay off their loans and end up worse off financially than when they first enrolled. Their default rate is almost 25 percent, compared to 9 percent for students who complete their degrees.
Addressing these issues is vital to our progress as a nation, because higher education is increasingly important in the 21st century. The economic benefits associated with a college degree are clear in measures like lifetime earnings and employment rates. A college education also correlates to a host of other positive outcomes. For example, college graduates have nearly twice the voting rate as high school graduates and report better health throughout their lives.
A growing proportion of jobs require either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or a certificate – and that trend will only accelerate. Yet the United States has fallen to 11th among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate’s degree or higher.
There is no single model for a successful undergraduate experience. Indeed, the diversity of educational pathways in the U.S. is a strength of our system. One thing is clear, however: now that most high school students have access to some type of college option, the nation’s success depends on our ability to realize the untapped potential of the many students who begin but don’t complete their undergraduate education.
To explore solutions to these challenges, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation, formed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2015, enlisting the service and wisdom of leaders from across all sectors of society. I was honored to serve as co-chair along with Mike McPherson, former president of Macalester College and the Spencer Foundation.
The commission recently released a report that takes a broad view – covering all types of institutions, students, and degrees – and that offers a range of practical and actionable recommendations in three priority areas: strengthening the educational experience, increasing completion and reducing inequities, and controlling costs and increasing affordability. Our hope is that it starts a national conversation and spurs action among all sectors of society. It will take a broad-based and sustained effort, but the payoff is huge: a nation in which all students can afford, complete, and enjoy the benefits of an education that truly prepares them for life in the 21st century.