American colleges and universities have long been viewed as the best in the world. Compared with other countries, the United States stands near the top in its nationwide percentage of college-educated adults. Our research universities dominate international rankings. Talented scholars and students from all corners of the globe come to study and teach on American campuses. By most accounts, our commitment to higher education access and excellence has been a key driver of our economic success.
Beneath this impressive exterior, however, some significant cracks are evident. Our youngest workers rank a disappointing 15th out of 34 industrialized countries in the percentage with a college diploma. Although the United States has been successful at getting more young people to start college, far too few finish a degree: 70% of our high school graduates now move on to some form of postsecondary education, but fewer than half of those who enroll finish a degree or certificate within six years. Graduation rates for black and Latino students are even worse. And there is growing skepticism about whether those lucky enough to graduate have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the 21st century economy.
Skyrocketing prices haven’t added to the appeal of U.S. colleges. Tuition rates have grown at three times the rate of inflation in recent decades, with the most dramatic increases occurring over the past four years. Students who enrolled in public colleges three years ago now face tuition as much as 50% to 80% higher in some states. To be sure, cuts to state funding for higher education have accelerated these tuition increases, and in some cases higher tuition has been offset by increased student aid. But higher prices also reflect a model of postsecondary education that is expensive, inefficient, and slow to change.
Students, taxpayers, business leaders, and policymakers have real reason for concern. Projections of labor market demand show that two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education by 2018. However, given today’s disappointing levels of higher education productivity, labor economists estimate that the United States will fall 3 million degrees short.
This education deficit greatly worries the business community—including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Businesspeople have a first-hand understanding of theways in which building a skilled workforce is vital for innovation and economic growth. They are also well aware that postsecondary education is valuable for other reasons: graduates of high-quality degree programs have better critical thinking skills than their peers, are more engaged citizens, and are less likely to be unemployed.
But to reap these benefits fully, the nation clearly has a long way to go. Producing the additional degrees the United States needs would be a challenge in flush economic times; doing so in the current fiscal environment will require significant and difficult modifications. State budget cuts have led to tuition increases, reduced offerings, and fewer seats—problems that, realistically, can be remedied only with significantly improved productivity. No wonder a majority of Americans have come to question whether a college education is worth the price of attendance. Political leaders from the state house to the White House have echoed these concerns, telling colleges and universities that they must learn to do more with less and that they will be held accountable when they do not. The drumbeat for a more efficient and effective postsecondary system has become steadily louder; it is being heard across party lines and is mobilizing support from leading philanthropists. After a half-century of devoting significant resources to expanding college access and then, in essence, hoping for the best when it came to education outcomes, leaders are now demanding a better return on our higher education investment.
But sustained higher education reform will require more than just stump speeches and bully pulpit rhetoric. It will require state systems and colleges themselves to take a hard look at how they spend public money, how to measure the quality of the education they provide, and how to promote student success in the absence of additional funding. Luckily, some states are leading the way on these fronts, and there is much to learn from their experiences. But it is equally important to recognize where states are falling short so that stakeholders can demand better.