With reason, countless Americans are fixated on the number 10, the percentage of unemployed family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances who are without work and a predictable future. More than a few have lost hope and others fear the possibility of a jobless recovery.
Several of my friends from academia believe the United States may have a 10 percent unemployment rate for the foreseeable future, and they see only limited and short-term gains resulting from the stimulus packages now being crafted and offered by federal and state governments. Furthermore, they point to the mounting federal debt as being so large that it might not be addressable and could diminish our position in the world.
Grave as the financial picture is, I believe there are subplots that could make recovery problematic in any plausible scenario. The informed citizenry needs to realize what they do not know or only vaguely appreciate.
For example, the College Board and the Congressional TriCaucus have just released a chilling study, “The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color,” which underscores many of the dreadful possibilities that cry for widespread attention and systematic action. It is a report that should be required reading for any caring citizen.
Among its findings are these:
• Only 41 percent of black men graduate from high school in the U.S.;
• Just 22 percent of black males who begin at a four-year college graduate within six years;
• In recent years there have been more black males behind bars than enrolled in colleges and universities;
• A young black male has a one-in-three chance of going to prison;
• Black males make up about half of the current prison population.
• More than 50,000 black males are in Florida jails, while only 23,000 black males graduate from high school in Florida;
Other relevant findings coming from a panel of distinguished educators are:
• By 2025, one in every four students in the United States will be Latino;
• While more and more Latinos are attending college, the number who completes degrees has not kept pace with this growth;
• The proportion of Hispanics holding a high school credential is about 65 percent, compared to a 91 percent rate for Asian Americans;
• Almost 20 percent of male inmates in prison are Latinos between the ages of 18 and 34;
• Only 4 percent of the Native American population has a bachelor’s degree and one out of three Native Americans lives in poverty.
“It is apparent that we have a lot of heavy lifting to do and soon,” Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, said in response to the study.
Perhaps it is time to fully recognize, develop, and support the potential might of the community college movement in America. Many two-year schools offer programs in which their graduates can make at least as much money as those completing four-year colleges and university degrees. President Obama sees the possibilities and is determined to produce five million more community college graduates and certificate holders in the next decade, clearly a big step in the right direction for job growth.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor employment projections, 19 of the 30 fastest-growing occupations will not require university degrees. The department says, “The most significant source of postsecondary education or training is an associate or higher degree” and the ones requiring only an associate degree range from computer specialists to dental hygienists.
Community colleges now enroll half of the country’s undergraduate students, and their future enrollment projections are climbing. There is a widely held view that community colleges mean jobs, jobs in large and small communities.
It would be naïve, even shameful, to not recognize that community colleges can prepare our citizens for sorely needed employment. But in no way am I diminishing the role of four-year colleges and universities; far from it.
As never before, responsible leaders from business, industry, and the professions are turning to higher education for ideas, ideas that can be transformed into a revived economy. The private sector wants action, not talk, not endless deliberations.
They believe the intellectual power of academia must be responsive, in an unprecedented way, and they want to see an enhanced and timely return on their investment, their taxes, and growing corporate and private contributions. They are quick to point out that higher education stands to lose its role as a transformational leader without early economic recovery or some semblance of it.
It is obvious that colleges and universities have a structure in place, one that must be ramped up. Yet there is no time for endless campus deliberations; universities must devise turnaround plans with dispatch and provide the people to transform ideas into tangible action.
The fundamental research tools are there, on our campuses, and President Obama has pledged to fund the best of them, those that are likely to assure job creation. Innovative colleges and universities will be rewarded handsomely through grants.
For generations, presidents at our great public and private universities have asked for a much stronger voice in national affairs. Clearly, their time has come and an ailing nation awaits their messages of hope and progress. America needs every able hand at the oar to position the country in having one of the highest graduation rates in the world, and people of color must be a part of the solution. Intellect is not determined by color.
— Gene A. Budig is a distinguished professor at the College Board in New York City and the former president/chancellor at three large state universities, including Kansas University. He also served as president of Major League Baseball‚s American League.