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Regaining Global Dominance by Degrees

These are trying times. America's degree-attainment rate is stagnant, while rates in many other countries surge ahead. John Walda, NACUBO president and CEO, describes efforts by higher education associations to turn around the trend and points to collaboration as a major tactic to achieve President Obama's 2020 attainment goal.

By John Walda

*The New Year is an ideal time to reflect not only on positive accomplishments, but also on higher education challenges that lie ahead and evaluation of our efforts to meet them. Looming large is President Obama's attainment goal—that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, by 2020. Similarly, the Lumina Foundation for Education states as its "big goal" to have 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality, two- or four-year college degrees and credentials by 2025—which means producing approximately 150,000 additional degrees each year.

I stand with President Obama and the Lumina Foundation in believing that this is not only possible, but extremely important to our country's well-being.

Degrees Open Doors

That said, approximately 39 percent of American adults currently hold a two- or four-year degree—the same attainment rate we've had for four decades. Yet, these rates are rising in almost every other industrialized country in the world. Employment trends play a big part. Global competition and the computer-driven workplace are rapidly eliminating middle-class jobs that for generations were plentiful and did not require college-level knowledge or skills. Consider the numbers: In 1973, only 28 percent of jobs required a higher education degree. By 2018, it will be 62 percent.

Now is the time to share our resources and our expertise.

Meanwhile, rates of college attainment among underserved students (first-generation, low-income, and those of color) are significantly lower than those of other students. When you pair this with the fact that the average income of Americans with a four-year degree is $43,000 per year, but only $27,000 for those with only a high school diploma, this persistent gap in educational attainment becomes an even greater societal issue.

Collaboration and Commitment

NACUBO, in partnership with the other higher education associations that comprise the Washington Higher Education Secretariat (WHES), has been fully engaged in practical ways to improve attainment. Three working groups have examined the issues and are circulating for discussion drafts addressing a number of federal and institutional policy recommendations as well as practical recommendations.

Following are descriptions of some of the work groups' activities:

  • Persistence and completion. This group calls upon federal policy makers to reaffirm their commitment to need-based financial aid, and to provide incentives to colleges to improve degree attainment of at-risk students. This means more resources for engaging students, building a stronger K–16 pipeline by partnering with communities, and identifying best practices that influence college completion.
  • Learning outcomes, educational quality, and student completion. To clarify what is meant by improved "outcomes," this work group is (1) encouraging a move away from course completion and credit hours to specific learning outcomes; (2) recommending that learning outcomes be viewed as one piece of a systemic approach to quality and completion; and (3) calling for high-impact practices to improve learning outcomes, progress assessment, and student-need fulfillment.
  • Common core standards and teacher preparation. Most members of the Secretariat signed the statement of support for a final version of the common core standards. The work group urges colleagues to alert their members to engage in state and local discussions about core standards and support rational deliberation.

With a nod to Thomas Paine, these are times that try our souls. While the campaign to educate many more Americans isn't exactly a war, it can seem an endless struggle when waged in an environment of stagnant or shrinking resources. President Obama's 2020 attainment goal gives us numbers to strive for and a fixed point on the horizon against which to chart our progress. We in higher education tend to be motivated by a desire to learn, to innovate, and to serve, while promoting the greater good. Now is the time to share our resources and our expertise; to collaborate with fellow associations, institutions, and policy makers; and to work as one toward success.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.