Addressing America's Growing Education Deficit

When I was governor of West Virginia in the early 1990s, there was a ranking of developed countries based on the number of young people who had earned college degrees. Among 25 to 34 year-olds, the United States ranked third. I remember thinking that wasn't good enough. We used to be No. 1; we should lead the world in education attainment again.

Today we're ranked 12th. Behind Russia. Behind Japan and Korea. And if the pattern continues, soon to be behind a host of other nations smart enough to match their understanding of the importance of college completion with the investments that make it possible.

At the precise time that the importance of a college degree is increasing, the ability of the United States to compete in a global economy is decreasing.

This is a trend we must reverse.

We can debate the congressional stimulus package and the vast sums of money it includes to help pull us out of the recession. But those investments will mean little in the long run if we do not fuel the real engine of economic growth and the key to our global competitiveness -- education.

Each year 1.3 million students leave high school without graduating -- that's 7,000 students per day. Only about half of African American and Latino students earn a high school diploma. And the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma is more than three times higher than the rate of those with a college degree.

Make no mistake -- our growing education deficit over the long term is as great a threat to our nation's well-being as the fiscal crisis.

The College Board recently released an action agenda detailing steps the United States must take to regain its global competitiveness. Our goal is to ensure that at least 55 percent of young Americans earn a college degree or higher by 2025. As of today, no state has achieved this goal; for more than half of the states, less than one third of their population ages 25 to 34 hold a degree.

Changing this requires establishing and supporting efforts to support first-generation, low-income and minority students as they complete college. Equally important, we must strengthen the pre-kindergarten through college completion educational pipeline.

Building the foundation for college graduation starts well before a child enters primary school. A growing body of evidence suggests that children who attend high-quality pre-kindergarten programs begin grade school equipped with larger vocabularies, the basic and critical building block of language and learning. Yet just 47 percent of low-income 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs. That is why it is essential that states provide voluntary, high-quality preschool programs.

But that is only the beginning. We also need to ensure middle and high school counseling supports students' college aspirations. Today, there is only one counselor for every 467 students; that's almost twice the professional norm. In some states the ratio is as high as one counselor for every 800 students. Further, public secondary school counselors spend less than a quarter of their time on post-secondary admission counseling. We can turn this around by having colleges and universities provide college planning services in their communities, especially to low-income families.

There is also a growing gap between high school graduation requirements and the expectations of employers and colleges. Almost 45 percent of students who enter college seeking a bachelor's degree fail to graduate. That's why a rigorous high school curriculum must give students the knowledge and skills to master college-level courses and succeed in the workplace. We can do this by adhering to world-class standards throughout the nation so that all students are prepared for future opportunities in education, work and life.

Still, college will remain an unattainable dream for many unless we reduce costs and revamp student aid, providing clarity, predictability and greater simplicity for families.

We can do more than just remain competitive in the global economy. America can be number one again. We can reach the 55 percent by 2025 goal. But only if educators and policy makers alike take a hard look at the entire educational pipeline, from preschool through college completion.

We have to act now. In good times and bad, we must remember that a quality education remains the most valuable currency we have.