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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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