Policymakers push higher grad rates

Future economic growth will slow if graduation rates do not increase.

Policymakers push higher grad rates

Conor Shine

As the number of college graduates in the United States continues to lag compared to other countries, policy makers and higher education leaders are calling for a nationwide push to increase college completion rates.
Currently, 38 percent of U.S. adults ages 25 to 64 have attained a two- or four-year degree, ranking the United States 12th in the world. Forty-five percent of Minnesotans have a degree, but the state would still need to increase that amount by 15 percent to reach guidelines set out in a recent report released Tuesday by the Lumina Foundation for Education.
The report calls for the country to raise the percentage of its population with a college degree to 60 percent by 2025, something that would require graduating a total of 23 million more students than the current rate.
It warns that as the United States shifts away from a manufacturing and industrial based economy to a knowledge-based economy, it will become imperative to have a large supply of workers with advanced training to fill increasingly demanding jobs.
In February 2009, President Barack Obama made a similar call for the United States to have the largest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.
If the number of college graduates nationwide does not increase, it will slow the recovery from the recession and limit future economic growth, said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at Lumina . New job demands require workers be more highly skilled, Matthews said, and the country needs to provide workers who can fill the jobs or risk losing them to other countries.
Providing well-educated workers is especially important for Minnesota, because a quality workforce is one of the key factors that draws companies to the area, said David Metzen, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
“A lot of people don’t move here because of the weather,” he said. “If you interview the top CEOs, the reason they stay here is because we have a well-educated, hard-working population … This state will not be successful economically without a well-educated population.”
For Minnesota to reach the 60 percent attainment mark it would have to increase the number of graduates by 3,361 per year, but state colleges like the University of Minnesota are already near capacity. Plus, Metzen estimated Minnesota would need to bring its attainment rate to 70 percent to maintain its competitive advantage.
“Everybody’s busting at the seams,” Metzen said.
Metzen said some of the increase could be handled by schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system  and new technologies that allow online or distance learning will also help bridge the gap.
Educating people who have some college credit but never completed a degree will be one crucial piece in reaching the attainment mark, Matthews said. About 671,000 Minnesotans currently fall into this category.
The goal won’t be reached by only educating students coming out of high school, Matthews said, but universities can help progress toward that mark by being more productive with their resources and making sure students graduate on time. He said universities can also help by setting up easy pathways for transfer and non-traditional students into the school.
While he agrees the country needs a well-educated workforce, George Leef argued that increasing the number of college graduates is not necessarily the key to economic success.
A four-year college degree is not for everyone and a culture of “credential mania” has led people to seek degrees, even when it may not be beneficial for them, said Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, an independent think-tank.
“There is a huge number of people with college degrees these days who are working in jobs that don’t call for the slightest bit of academic preparation,” Leef said.
 “A lot of kids who are really not interested in studies, not well prepared for college, nevertheless go thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got to do this because having a college degree is essential.’ And they’re just blowing through four, five or six years of their lives, having some fun for sure, but doing themselves little or no long-term good.”
As opposed to focusing only on college attainment, emphasis should also be put on teaching more job skills in K-12 education and an increased focus on vocational training, Leef said.
On-the-job training can provide many of the skills people need to be successful at work, Leef said, and companies instead use degrees as a “screening device.”
“[Employers] are saying, ‘If you don’t have a college degree, don’t even bother applying here,’” he said, “even though the work itself doesn’t call for any advanced understanding of anything.”