A warning for the new Secretary of Education: Recent international comparisons provide little to cheer about this holiday season.
Long the envy of the international community, America led the world in high school completion rates throughout the 20th century, but today it ranks just 21st out of 27 advanced economies. Furthermore, college graduation rates have plummeted from number one in the world for younger workers, ages 25 to 34, to number 11.
“Our nation is on the verge of losing its global edge, which is essential to our economy,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said. “We clearly are moving in the wrong direction if we are to be competitive.”
Caperton’s organization sponsored a yearlong study by the National Commission on Access, Admissions, and Success in Higher Education, and its findings are fodder for any national discussion of priorities for funding.
One graphic is compelling and threatening. During the past 20 years, the torrent of American talent that has entered the educational pipeline has been reduced to a trickle. The K-16 system is broken and must be fixed.
“To reclaim our international position in the front rank of countries with a well-educated citizenry, we must establish and reach a goal of providing 55 percent of American adults with an associate or baccalaureate degree by the year 2025,” declared Brit Kirwan, chair of the star-studded commission and chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Such advancement would realign us with the most aggressive nations, with our competitors.
The commission considers the goal daunting, but attainable.
“If the numbers continue to languish, the United States will experience a different kind of quality of life, one that will disappoint most of its citizens and cause massive unease,” Kirwan said.
Specifically, to ensure that 55 percent of American adults hold at least an associate degree by 2025, the Commission recommends a new Marshall Plan for American education. It must challenge current attitudes and commitment and require an aggressive effort from community colleges.
The plan advanced by the Commission will necessitate the best from our schools, colleges and universities, parents and students and public officials — and especially from the new Secretary of Education who will have to lend a strong and effective voice to improving the graduation rates of students in the United States. During the campaign, the president-elect seemed very much aware of many of the points made in the report.
Among the studied recommendations of the Commission were these:
● Provide universal, voluntary access to preschool so that all children enter school ready to learn.
● Implement the best research-based, dropout prevention programs to identify students at risk of leaving school early and put a safety net under them.
● Establish a college preparatory program as the default curriculum in high school so that students do not limit or foreclose future educational options.
● Establish national curriculum standards and align school curriculum with college admission requirements to minimize the need for remediation on campus.
● Improve teacher quality and focus on recruitment and retention because an educational system can only be as good as its teachers.
● Simplify the college admission process to encourage more low-income, minority and first-generation students to apply for admission.
● Provide more grant aid to minimize student debt, keep pace with inflation, and provide institutions with incentives to enroll and graduate low-income and first-generation students.
● Keep college affordable by controlling costs, using available aid and resources wisely, and insisting that states hold up their end of the bargain, and improve college retention and ease transfer among institutions to minimize the number of dropouts and recognize the increased mobility of today’s students.
Members of the commission are realistic and sensitive to the massive mountain that must be scaled to realize economic recovery and return to stability in the United States and elsewhere. What we need, as award-winning columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has pointed out, is not just a bailout, but a creative buildup.
That buildup will be determined by the productivity of our people, men and women who are focused on the future and realize the importance of substantive change and the education of a new generation of workers.
Perhaps as never before, the needs and goals of a great nation must be tied to heightened strength in education at all levels and a heretofore unseen commitment to educating future generations. Yes, we can. Yes, we must.
— Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University, and past president of Major League Baseball’s American League.