Americans behind in completing college

America doesn’t lead the world in college completion rates, but Obama is trying to catch up.

Camille Galles

Quick — name something that you can’t live without that is also worthless. It sounds like a brainteaser, but if you’re reading this column, you’re probably living this paradox right now.

The answer is a college degree.

A bachelor’s degree is an entry pass to the real world, an essential tool for finding a “good job.” But graduates leave four-year institutions with a lot more than a diploma. Mountains of student debt and a bleak job market are inescapable realties, often rendering diplomas devoid of value.

In 2009, President Barack Obama declared his goal for the United States to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. To reach that goal, the current percentage of young American adults with at least an associate’s degree would have to increase by 17 percentage points.

Six years later, experts agree that the president’s goal looks unachievable. But so what? Raw percentages are less important than achieving a healthy balance between access to education and employment. Before graduation percentages can increase, the definition of college completion has to become meaningful first.

It’s no secret that it’s tough out there for millennials. A new U.S. Senate report states that adults ages 18 to 24 (who also fit the age demographic for “recent college grad”) are the least likely to find jobs, and they have the highest unemployment rate across the country. This is true even in Minnesota, where employment rates are high. In the next decade, 70 percent of jobs  in our state will require education beyond high school as well.

So millennials need college degrees … for jobs that won’t hire them.

What?

Instead of merely seeking to increase graduation percentages, the Obama administration should incentivize strategies that expand the definition of “college completion.” This will not only expand employment but completion rates as well.

Programs for students already enrolled in a postsecondary institution need to be re-evaluated to fit the shifting economy. The University of Minnesota’s new CLA Roadmap is a good example of how a program could focus on job attainment and the skills necessary to get there. Tactics like this can help make an expensive college education worth the money and boost the employment rate.

But strategies shouldn’t focus only on four-year institutions. Community colleges educate half of all undergraduates and 44 percent of low-income students, but their graduation rates remain low. As University President Eric Kaler recently stated, all higher education institutions should receive broad support. However, support for community colleges often means support for minority and underprivileged students and efforts to close the achievement gap. Recognition of a technical certificate’s validity — from government figures and employers — can result in a strong hiring rate, too.

Leading the world in college completion is a fine goal. But without substance, the numbers are meaningless. The president has one year left. Let’s hope his higher education plans can move him closer to his goal while also moving all college graduates closer to a job.