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U.S. lags behind its rivals in college degrees, especially in the south

President Barack Obama spoke to students at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, where he tied college graduation rates to the economy. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A decade ago, the United States was the world’s leader in producing college students with bachelor’s degrees — an indicator, analysts say, of long-term economic strength.

Today, the U.S. ranks 12th — in the key age range of 25 to 34 — behind nations like Russia and South Korea.

That, too, may be a bellwether for future economic growth, some fear. And in an address at the University of Texas on Monday afternoon, President Obama embraced the view that higher education is tied to economic competitiveness, suggesting that the U.S. would continue to lag behind its rivals in the global marketplace without producing at least eight million more college graduates by 2020.

“In today’s world, we are being pushed as never before. From Beijing to Bangalore, Seoul to San Paolo, new industries and innovations are flourishing,” Obama told a crowd of cheering students in Austin. “Our competition is growing fiercer.”

He added: “Education is an economic issue. It may be the economic issue of our time.”

The president’s address came less than a month after a report by the College Board warned of the dangers of the nation’s poor college-completion rates, painting a bleak portrait of an American education system that has failed to equip its students for the 21st century economy. The report found that, for the first time in the nation’s history, adults between the ages of 25 and 34 lagged behind their older counterparts in college completion rates. In 14 states — including Texas, where the president spoke — less than 20 percent of adults in that age range had associate’s degrees or higher.

The report also presents a dilemma that has bedeviled educational policymakers and administrators at colleges and universities for years: How to ensure that access to a college education ensures success and, ultimately, graduation. For years, the focus among lawmakers and university officials has been on improving minorities’ and low-income students’ access to college, rather than their ability to finish and obtain degrees. That approach has produced a seemingly paradoxical trend in which more first-time students are attending college, but less are completing college with degrees in hand.

Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in Arkansas, a state of entrenched poverty, where just over 40 percent of students finish college with bachelor’s degrees in six years or less. Arkansas is one of several southern states that have seen college enrollment rates increase, even as college completion rates remain stubbornly low. The contradiction has frustrated education officials and prompted calls for action at the highest levels of state government.

“Our access is pretty good, but our students don’t finish,” said Karen Hodges, the executive director of academic success at the University of Arkansas. “The number one reason — at least those that withdraw, who do a survey for us — that they’re not continuing is financial.”

Hodges sat on a task force created by the Arkansas legislature in 2008 to examine the state’s dismal college-completion rates and recommend solutions. One of them is additional financial aid, in the form of four-year scholarships that increase every year a student stays in college. The program has prompted the University of Arkansas to add an additional 500 students to its freshman class this year.

Another proposed solution is a renewed emphasis on social and academic support, as well as college preparedness programs that begin as early as middle or elementary school and mandatory time-management courses for all college freshmen. Hodges said she has found that the most challenging cases are often those of first-generation students, whose parents did not attend college and who may be unequipped to handle the demands of college life.

“Even if they have gone through A.P. courses in high school, and have gotten the Chancellor’s Scholarship here, we’re a major research institution. And so there’s really nothing that has quite prepared them for that,” Hodges said, referring to the Advanced Placement program. “They haven’t had someone in the home who’s had a college experience, who could perhaps guide the student or better prepare them.”

Tennessee, another southern state with a widening college-completion gap between older and younger adults, has faced a similar challenge. Long seen as a haven for manufacturing companies seeking cheap labor, Tennessee is a place of stark disparities. The state comprises affluent suburbs built around leading research institutions, such as Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and small towns and counties of abject poverty, where often the only adults with college degrees are the public school teachers.

There, too, policymakers have attempted to re-engineer the state’s approach toward retaining college students. Less than 20 percent of Tennesseans aged 25 to 34 have at least an associate’s degree, a gap that officials attribute mainly to the state’s emphasis on college enrollment rather than retention. Earlier this year, Tennessee lawmakers rewrote the state’s higher education funding formulas, tying public money not to enrollment, but to graduation rates and the numbers of bachelor’s degrees produced.

“That’s really not where the funding incentives were,” said Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which has been charged with crafting a master plan for college completion and implementing the new fiscal approach. “The funding formula that’s been developed now is all based on outcome. We care about bringing in more and more students, but the campuses are funded based on outcome.”

Like most states — and especially those in the south — funding for higher education is limited, and the economic downturn has forced unrelenting cutbacks even to sacred programs, such as financial aid. In Arkansas, for example, the number of applicants for so-called “Academic Challenge” scholarships far outpaces the funding available, and the allocation of that money has been based in part on a lottery system.

In Tennessee, large campuses with increased enrollment may actually lose funding if they fail to improve their graduation rates. The change could be jarring to the state’s battered higher education system. But as Rhoda explained, it may be necessary to help Tennessee catch up with the rest of the country.

“The big issue — and some of the campus folks might look at this differently — but from our perspective, is how we fund public higher education,” Rhoda said. “We used to have a mechanism, a formula, that was largely driven by warm bodies — the enrollment.”

He added: “It’s like a change in mindset.”

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  • links for 2010-08-10 | Lelapin’s Weblog

    [...] U.S. lags behind its rivals in college degrees, especially in south | Need to Know | PBS A decade ago, the U.S. was #1 in producing college graduates…today it's #12: – Need to Know (PBSNeedToKnow) (tags: pkrts) [...]

  • Kristina U

    Is Hughes, Karen Hodges?

  • Michael

    The problem is financial, yes, however, is also because of the public high schools environment. Because of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ myth of “all children will succeed” we are now raising a generation which believe (as many parents do as well) that if their child doesn’t pass school its the teachers fault. Teachers are then forced to teach to a test and therefor students don’t get the education they deserve, the get a school-wide education on how to take a test. “…large campuses with increased enrollment may actually lose funding if they fail to improve their graduation rates.” This sound like a ‘higher’ educational version of NCLB if I’ve ever heard it. BE SCARED AMERICA, ITS GONNA GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER! We need to repeal No Child Left Behind.

  • Jade

    Tennessee is making a huge mistake. Funding colleges only for the number of students they graduate will encourage the same kind of behavior in college that now happens in K-12 — pass them whether they can read and write or not. If college funding depends upon graduation rates, you can be sure all kinds of pressure will be put on professors to pass every breathing body. It would make more sense to find out *why* the students are dropping out and address the actual problem.

  • Sal

    Hi Kristina–

    Thanks for pointing that out. The first reference, Hodges, is correct. We’ve updated the text.


  • Charles

    apparently you haven’t updated the text correctly. “Hughes said she has found that the most challenging cases …”

  • Sal

    Thanks Charles, it should be fixed now.

  • Steve

    So, as a college instructor, if my students don’t do the work, reading, or attend class or have personal issues (work, illness, family, etc) which cause them to leave school or fail, then that counts against me/my school? That’s absurd, especially for community colleges, where these sorts of lack of preparation, basic student/study skills, and life-obstacles are endemic in the population.

    Where’s the personal responsibility and accountability for the student? I’m willing to accept some responsibility for when students who are in class, do the work, and make significant mental and physical efforts, but when my average student misses at least 10% of the course and does less than 70% of the work, then that is NOT my fault or failing as a school or a teacher when they get behind.

  • Anna

    Colleges pack in large freshmen classes with students that are not prepared for it. Everyone in America now expects their kids to attend college, but a lot of them don’t understand that it involves hard work, sacrifice and dedication. Therefore, students are coming underprepared to college in increasing numbers. There is plenty of fault to go around on this one.

  • Dennis

    This does not take into account the large push, since 1998, for increased federal and state support for community colleges, which only offer certificates or associate’s degrees. The amount of direct support for four-year baccalaureate institutions has gone down in real dollar amounts.

  • Me

    What motivation is there to get a college degree nowadays when, in this economic climate, a job isn’t guaranteed whereas many years of being in debt is?

  • amy

    See, problem is, you get a degree (have $40,000 dollars in student loans) and then YOU CAN’T GET A JOB! They’re being shipped overseas by the minute. AND we’re making it harder for kids to even graduate from high school (especially in poverty stricken districts – rural and urban). We’ve stripped public schools of all the hands on, creative, enriching learning experiences I was fortunate to benefit from THAT KEPT ME IN SCHOOL. No art, gym, choir, band, drama, etc. – just the core (standardized-testable) academics for you poor child. We’ve cut shop classes from our high schools (which taught skills that led to decent paying JOBS – imagine that.) All we’re teaching to anymore is standardized tests. We’re forcing kids to take 4 years of math to graduate high school (even if they may not have the ability or want to take these courses). We’re witholding diplomas if children can’t pass standardized exit exams. Basically we’re GUARANTEEING that many children will fail and live in poverty for the rest of their lives. We need to provide as many opportunities for success as possible for our students. Not everyone is going to be an engineer, doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist, etc. Not everyone is college material, and that is OKAY. We need mechanics, welders, x-ray techs, construction workers, burger flippers, etc. Every job has value and serves someone in our community. We need sound job policy. We need basic preventative healthcare for everyone. I have students who come to school with teeth rotting out of their heads. We need a return to some common sense. Education is a HUMAN enterprise. We need to start focusing on our students and their basic needs and maybe then we’ll have more graduates from high school AND college. More importantly, we’ll have well adjusted, creative productive citizens who feel valued, no matter what job they do. We seem to have lost our way. We need to redefine what it means to be successful in this country.

  • tammy

    The cost of higher education in this country is a travesty. It would be interesting to know the percentage of kids attending college in these rival countries, as well as the cost to attend university as a percentage of annual income. In England, a bachelor’s degree is typically earned in three years rather than the four years it takes here. A master’s degree typically takes one year rather than two. That alone significantly reduces costs for a student. American higher education is a business like any other, and students and families would be wise to shop around for the best value. And perhaps kids should start honing their interests earlier in high school. If they went to college with a clearer idea of what they wanted to study and what career they wanted to have, they would be more likely to finish in a timely manner and have a job. This requires far better high school guidance and college career services. Students should be introduced to the college placement office during freshman orientation. Colleges and universities should also take a much more proactive approach in helping students to minimize their debt levels. Excessive student debt is a serious drag on the entire economy.

  • Chip

    Tammy is right on the money about costs! I am working for $32k and my Master’s degree alone costs $50k. When I tried to buy a house, the financial adviser mocked my wife and I for going to grad school (and I am serious, he laughed at my wife and condemned us for going back to school). This is what happens when the anti-intellectuals get their wish. I may just quit my job to make $50k+ on an assembly line to pop rivets. I live in an area where we can’t touch a house for under $200k, the crooks… rather, banks approved us for $50k. Goodbye middle class, the backbone of democracy!

  • Sue

    Steve, Tammy and Anna have a point along with those who argue we are asking too much of students when we don’t spell out in High School what is expected before they enter the college experience. Test scores are not the be all in college, it is a lot of effort in discussion and participation in groups, study skills and mid-term test preparation, along with more of the above. Agreeing doesn’t help. We do have to have our say and then take a stand with students to achieve a better state of education in this country. It is expensive, I agree, and education is not cheap. Graduating a year early saves money, yes. However the frugality in the whole system is not the answer, it is patience and presence for the students by teachers, parents, faculty and the campus community the student sees daily.

  • links for 2010-08-11 | Lelapin’s Weblog

    [...] U.S. lags behind its rivals in college degrees, especially in south | Need to Know | PBS Comment: "What motivation is there to get a college degree when a job isn’t guaranteed whereas…debt is?" – Need to Know (PBSNeedToKnow) (tags: pkrts) This entry was posted in 1. Bookmark the permalink. ← From Twitter 08-11-2010 [...]

  • Kat

    We have obviously realized by now that No Child Left Behind sounded good on paper, but it sucked royally in practice. Our government has failed our school systems, thereby failing our students…the reasons HOW and WHY are too numerous for me to spell out here…I have not Thomas Jefferson’s patience in listing the numerous crimes against humanity that he did when writing our Declaration. :P

    I personally believe education is a word fraught with so much attached angst and worry instead of joy and discovery. Is it any wonder so many parents are going to homeschooling, religious reasons notwithstanding? Why would I want to put any future child of mine into a school system where there is no band, choir, gym, even RECESS for God’s sake? Why would I want to send my kid to a school where standardized tests are the measure for success when my boyfriend and I could not only homeschool our kids within reason, but also take our kid to the zoo, science center, museums, concerts (of all kinds)…inspire them to be physically and mentally fit by signing them up for karate at the Y (other kids there will provide the social interaction necessary) or inspire a kid to be a vet just by teaching them how to take care of a beloved cat or dog–or reptile if the child is so inclined.

    There is MORE than one way to teach a child about the wonders of the world–and standardized testing is but one way—and as I see it, this sends a child down a very grim, grey road–no discovery, no adventure…just more training to be a robot in a cubicle just whiling away the hours till lunch break where the only real social interaction that person will really have is with co-workers or their boss, and maybe only for a half-hour.

    It is said in an old Biblical parable that seed sown in bad soil will not flourish, and seed sown in soil that is nourishing but nobody tends the garden will grow to live a very short life, ended by choking weeds, but seed sown in good soil, with tender care by a master gardener will grow to have a full long life, bearing good fruit…not only does this apply to just the realm of spirituality, but also to raising and teaching children…

    And as far as I am concerned, given my experiences, we have a long way to go before we realize the children of this country–no, the WORLD–are not, and should not be regarded as commodities, or pawns of bureaucratic hemming and hawing and blind fiscal conservatism. Our children are precious souls, eager to find out what the world is like…it is our responsibility as grown-ups to give them more than just standardized tests and angry teachers (angry because they’re not allowed to go beyond “accepted curriculum” and have to put up with restless kids who NEED recess, not more classroom time).

    So…since our schools are unwilling–or unable to do it–why don’t the adults who know a trade (like carpentry, or something like that) find a way to teach a basic course at a local Y, Boys n Girls Club or library or something? Be a Big Brother/Big Sister and mentor a kid in something cool..,as it’s said in the Linux computer programming community–there’s ALWAYS a workaround! :D

    Sorry to say, but though it may take a village to raise and teach a child, the sheeple of this country elected (falsely the first time round, and stupidly–albeit legitimately–the second time) the village idiot who had no dang clue whatsoever what it really takes to not only provide for a child, but inspire them to succeed in what THEY wish to do in life.

  • Lois Schmidt

    Comments are mostly very thoughtful, but until we start producing more goods here in our own country, we will not return to any kind of prosperity. Students are discouraged at the prospect of huge loan debt from over-priced education knowing down deep the prospect of getting, and keeping, a good job is more than tenuous. Companies, corporations, continue to ship jobs overseas to avoid paying decent wages, yet still believe we here will continue endlessly to buy their ‘stuff.’ The well will soon run dry. Good returns on investment weren’t enough – greed has triumphed over decency and the common good. I can’t see that trend being turned back – nothing in it for them anymore, as a high ethical and moral standard has evaporated from our society, and probably all over the world.

    As my late brother-in-law used to say, ‘Other than that, things are looking up.’

  • Amy Gibson

    Back in June, the Oohm blog broke the news Obama delivered at UT Austin and has discussed the options we have for reversing it. For very well-written short postings on strategy in higher education check it out…

  • Chris Presnell

    Maybe if they’d stop paying University coaches multi-million dollar salaries for sports teams (which doesn’t help our country economically compete with China at all), they’d be able to offer an affordable college education worthy of International competition. No more scholarships for such important business-related majors such as volleyball!!! We need MATH AND SCIENCE, not athletics. We’ve always had athletics and look where we are today. We suck!!!! We’ll never be a superpower again unless we start making things in America again!!! Did you hear that Bill Clinton (whom I blame for helping China replace us as a major world exporter)? Remember Al Gore giving U.S. missle technology to the LORAN corporation (aka, the Chinese government) in the 90′s? That’s about when WalMart stopped their “Made In USA” campaign. Now with a poorly educated workforce, we’ll NEVER be able to regain our position as a world leader. Guess that’s why my aquaintences in Europe consider the U.S. to be a third world country. Look at our “broadband” internet speed, our education system, our manufacturing capability… If we don’t improve our education system immediately (or maybe it’s too late), we are doomed to the same fate as the former Soviet Union. Here’s a mathmatical forumula for you…
    USA + China = Former USSR = doomed

  • Dale Gunter

    Encourage and support non-traditional students. People who have been out of school and seen the real world and chose to go back to school know what they are doing and why they are there. Why invest millions of dollars on traditional students who were a two out of three graduate investment when I was a freshman forty-three years ago and now one out of two graduate investment, and ignore the non-traditional students who will have a 95% pass rate and already be oriented to the business and professional world. I had five years of life experience between my BS and MS degrees. Life experience does make a difference.

  • C.Roman

    I was not able to attend college, but I strongly encourage my kids to attend college at any cost. Why? Because education / knowledge is good for you. It helps round you out as a person. What you do with your knowledge is something else.
    I’m employed and not lazy by any means, support my family and would enjoy attending college but the reality is I can’t afford it. The basic cost of living consumes most of my salary. So I push my kids to work and pay for schooling as they go, that way when they finish they are not in the trap of having to owe. It appears to be working.
    No job is guaranteed. That’s in the contract. But in this great country you can use your knowledge to start a business which is much better.
    My wife has been unemployed for two years. She has the time, but not the money. She can’t even qualify for government assistance because of my salary. The only options available are not financially wise.
    Until our leaders get in touch with our needs, a few of us will slowly spiral to the bottom, a few who can afford college will spiral to the top, and some will be lost.

  • Kevin

    Investment in education is like any other investment. A profit is expected or why bother? The unemployement lines are full of graduates who have loans to repay. People contemplating going to college see the unemployment lines and say why bother? The classic answer has been “education is a long term investment.” But, just like investing in the stock market, it is hard to have a long term perspective when your stock is going down 30% right now. At least with stock, you can sell and cut your losses. With a college degree, it is a sunk cost–all or nothing. If College education is important to the nations well being, then the nation can do a better job of subsidizing its students. We as a nation gave Trillions of dollars to Wall Street crooks because is was in our interest. Don’t our young students deserve at least as much?

  • Dan Trevino

    Education is an issue, and an answer for everyone, may not be plausible. No two people are alike. I did not go to college, but have numerous college graduates working for me. Practical knowledge is just as important, or more so, depending on the field you go into. But jobs are being shipped overseas at an alarming rate. It will not matter where you graduate from or with what degree, as the job you like, learned, and plan for is no longer available. There is no easy answer. Take the statistic from the speech above. The south is predominately rural with farmers and ranchers, who produce the food and meets most of you eat. Did those people go to college? I keep seeing less and less people doing the rural jobs, and moving to the city. But what does the city produce? Goods rely on natural resources and we are quickly running out. That big grocery store is getting their goods from Mexico and Central America, where the use of DDT and other banned chemical cannot be used in the US. Oil and gas is utilized by more suburbanites than by any farmer. Our cities need to be more efficient( public transportation, energy efficient structures and recycle) . We lag behind on those basic city functions and this would provide numerous local jobs. Or we can all learn chinese to cater to the new global power! Choices???

  • Joe_Cool

    Amen! Less IS more.