August 28, 2008

DEGREE OR NOT DEGREE? / America Faces a Shortage Of College Graduates

The annual ritual is in full swing at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, and across the nation. If you are in the VCU area this week you will witness giddy freshmen hauling belongings from car to dorm followed by weary parents wondering if their child really needs this much stuff to survive. Some are asking more serious questions about this annual migration, specifically whether the United States has cast too broad a net in promoting higher education as a requirement for success.

In his new book, Real Education, Bell Curve, author Charles Murray suggests that too many people are going to college. Murray argues that only 10 percent to 20 percent of students currently enrolled in four-year degree programs should actually be there.

His thesis deserves thoughtful examination. After all, tax dollars go to both public and private institutions of higher education in Virginia.

In fact, the United States is facing a dramatic shortage of college graduates. By the end of the next president's first term there will be 3 million more jobs requiring a bachelor's degree and not enough college graduates to fill them; 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs, 60 percent of all new jobs, and 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.

According to the U. S. Department of Labor, we need more - not fewer - citizens with postsecondary credentials to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of, other nations in the global economy.

An analysis by the State Higher Education executive officers argues that national education and political leaders must ensure that more students have access to college and the means to successfully complete their studies.

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems suggests that the U.S. will need to produce 63.1 million degrees to match leading nations Canada, Japan, and South Korea in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2025 - at our current pace we would come up 40.6 million degrees shy of that threshold.

Reducing the number of college students, as Murray suggests, would have a devastating impact on both the American economy and society itself. Well-paid, low-skilled jobs are disappearing rapidly, as manufacturing jobs move overseas. Those workers who simply want to keep pace and/or get ahead will need some postsecondary education and likely a credential, in order to participate in the knowledge-based economy.

Just a decade ago, our adult population led every industrialized nation in educational attainment. Now, we rank 10th behind other nations in the percentage of young adults with postsecondary credentials. To match today's leading industrialized nations and meet the employment needs of this country, the United States must eliminate this degree gap and produce more graduates with associate's or bachelor's degrees. To do so requires immediate action.

- We must target low-income and first-generation students (populations who are historically least likely to succeed in college and complete their degree programs), by allocating greater public resources to community colleges and regional four-year institutions, while also providing adequate need-based financial aid.

- The notoriously complex financial aid system must be overhauled.

- Information systems need to be developed to better track students' progress and determine whether they are at risk of dropping out.

Virginia has a long history of successful higher-education tradition and leadership. Students from all over the commonwealth benefit from our postsecondary systems. We're committed to ensuring that the hallmarks of access and success are not compromised and that our states continue to produce quality, well-educated graduates, who are a benefit to their communities.

Virginia is working to ensure that curricula matches the basic skills needed in both community colleges and four-year institutions, to create a wider pool of students and thus a more diverse group of graduates.

I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to pursue a two- or four- year degree. But everyone should have the option to participate successfully in a postsecondary experience.

Murray believes that the desire to educate more than just the top students amounts to "educational romanticism." Hardly. In fact, there's nothing romantic about it - it simply makes sense economically, culturally, and socially.

I don't know of any students who were harmed by spending a few hours reading the works of William Shakespeare, exploring the theories of John Maynard Keynes, or discovering the sense of satisfaction that comes with the mastery of new knowledge and skills. As educators we must continue our commitment to teaching more than just the country's educational elite. There is, after all, no virtue in closing the door on those who want to learn.

Daniel J. LaVista is executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Contact him at [email protected]


Originally published by J. LaVista.

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