Lumina Foundation Says US Continues to Lag Globally in Producing College Graduates - Higher Education
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Lumina Foundation Says US Continues to Lag Globally in Producing College Graduates

by Reginald Stuart

The United States continues to fall behind other major nations around the world in producing highly credentialed college graduates, despite a marginal gain between 2007 and 2008, says a new report by the Lumina Foundation for Education.

The nation’s economic slump over the past two years and slow recovery could make matters worse, says a researcher associated with the report.

“A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” as the report is titled, repeats its call for the nation’s higher education community to step up its efforts to retain and graduate more students, asserting the nation’s economic slump provides a special “opportunity” to take bolder steps to embrace historically underrepresented population groups to produce more graduates.

“It is essential that we redouble our efforts to close gaps in college participation and attainment for a range of underrepresented populations, including students of color, low-income and first-generation students, and adults,” the Lumina report states, noting the nation’s graduation rate rose by a fraction of a percent between 2007 and 2008, the most recent years for which comprehensive data are available. Lumina’s statistical report found 37.9 percent of Americans between ages 25 and 60 held two or four-year degrees, compared with 37.7 percent for the same age group in 2007.

Lumina has poured millions of dollars into programs designed to increase college access and graduation among population groups underrepresented in higher education, particularly for adults, low-income people and racial minorities. It is the nation’s largest foundation focused exclusively on higher education. Its so-called “Big Goal Agenda” embraced in whole or part by other larger foundations and Obama administration officials, calls for all of higher education to unite behind a goal having 60 percent of all Americans holding a postsecondary degree or credential by the year 2025. 

The report found graduation rates of college success for low-income citizens and minority groups “continue to lag significantly,” behind other population groups, even as (low-income citizens and minority groups) “constitute a growing share of the potential pool of students.” Lumina said it would be impossible for the nation to significantly boost graduation rates (including reaching the Big Goal) without closing the attainment gaps.

The Lumina report, which the foundation says it will update annually, is filled with state-by-state data on graduation rates and how much progress each state needs to make to help reach the Big Goal. The data is not broken down by racial or ethnic grouping. Also, it does not make specific recommendations on what it thinks states should do to boost their efforts.

In the report, Lumina states “there is a growing consensus the economic recovery is being hindered by a lack of workers with the advanced skills and knowledge demanded in this economy.” Put another way, our ability to retool and ‘up-skill’ workers to meet the changing requirements of employment markets is itself a significant factor in economic growth, the report said.

“We don’t see the economic crisis as a road block,” to the nation’s schools stepping up their efforts and meeting the Big Goal,” Lumina President Jamie Merisotis says in a telephone interview about the report. “It’s an opportunity and a challenge.”

Merisotis says the tough economy presents schools an “opportunity” to get “more productivity out of the system” and to place more focus on higher education, the welfare of the nation requiring it.  Echoing findings in the report, Merisotis says the economic slump helps everyone gain a greater understanding of “the connection” between higher education and jobs. “Higher education helps create jobs; they are part of the innovation economy,” he says.

By the same token, Merisotis says, “the challenge is the states and others are being stymied because of their inability to invest.” He says he does not expect to see “significant” investments in higher education by cash-strapped governments in the near future, citing the report’s advice to educators and their funders.

“For the goal to be reached, college and universities, higher education systems and states must contain costs and reallocate their resources to programs that help more students succeed,” the report says. “They must be rewarded not merely for enrolling students, but for graduating them from high-quality programs. They must expand and strengthen lower-cost, innovative options for delivering coursework. They also need high-quality data systems that include student outcome data and are used consistently to inform decisions about how to serve students more effectively.”

In reinforcing the urgency of the matter, the Lumina report cites a Georgetown University economic analysis, titled ‘Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018’. That analysis concluded “fully 60 percent of jobs in the United States will require postsecondary education by 2018,” far sooner than the Lumina Big Goal target

Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, was more guarded in his assessment of the economy’s impact on the Big Goal.

“The recession pushes people into college,” Carnevale said in a telephone interview, noting the surge in enrollments at many two- and four-year schools across the country. “The challenge will be to keep them there. The recession will make it hard for them to complete,” he says, noting many will run out of money before their graduation and be unable to compete school.

“In past recessions, a lot of people will go but won’t complete,” Carnevale says.

“The economy will make reaching the overall goal tough” Carnevale says. “It will make the equity goal even tougher,” he says, noting a steadily growing number of schools are becoming “more selective,” excluding many people in historically underserved population groups from pursuing degrees that lead to higher pay.

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