Getting to 60 Percent: How to Close America's Education-Employment Gap

The economic recovery debate misses the fact that as the economy does add jobs over the next decade, America will be unable to fill these positions unless we dramatically increase the size of our college-educated workforce.
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Politicians and economists can argue until they're blue in the face about how long it will take to regain the jobs our country lost during the Great Recession. But the debate misses the fact that as the economy does add jobs over the next decade, America will be unable to fill these positions unless we dramatically increase the size of our college-educated workforce. So far, we're not doing it, and the bad news is that we are standing virtually still while educational attainment has been accelerating worldwide.

A rapidly growing percentage of the jobs being created around the world now require a college education, and as the knowledge-based economy continues to grow, that percentage is only expected to get larger. While other nations are responding to this opportunity by dramatically increasing their college-educated workforces, our country is only doing so at a snail's pace. A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce showed that by 2018, the U.S. economy will need 22 million new workers with college degrees. At current graduation rates, we will fall short of that number by at least three million. If we don't figure out a way to close that education-employment gap, those three million jobs will instead go to workers overseas.

Responding to this crisis, The Lumina Foundation has set a long-term goal of increasing the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 holding quality, post-secondary degrees to 60 percent by the year 2025. The foundation's new report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, shows that number was just 37.9 percent in 2008. That percentage is growing by just 0.2 percent per year- this should be alarming. It shouldn't take a math major to figure out that we're going to fall far short of that 60 percent goal if we don't change something now.

But here's the good news: the 60 percent figure is an attainable goal, if we get serious about it today. Lumina's report shows that in order to reach their goal, the U.S. will need to increase the number of college graduates by 278,000 per year. It's a realistic figure, but it requires that we redouble our efforts in three crucial areas:

1. We need to find more ways for working adults with some college education to return to school and complete their degrees.
More than 37 million Americans, or 22 percent of the U.S. workforce, have attended college but not completed a degree. In the past, some college education was enough to guarantee a steady job and a middle-class lifestyle. That's no longer the case for many workers, and will be increasingly less true as the knowledge-based economy continues to grow around the world. This group of 37 million Americans with some college presents an enormous opportunity to help close the education-employment gap. However, it will take a coordinated effort among policymakers, employers and educators to create more opportunities for all of these workers to finish their degrees.

2. We must ensure that all students are able to succeed in college once they get there. Students of color, those from low-income families and first-generation students make up an increasingly larger portion of the student population, but their completion rates continue to significantly lag behind those of their peers. We must make it a national priority to help more of these underrepresented students not only reach college, but succeed once they are there.

3. We cannot let the cost of a quality college education continue to spiral out of reach for Americans families. If we are unable to slow down the rapid rate of tuition increases, college will soon be unaffordable for millions of middle-class Americans. If that happens, we'll have no hope of closing the education-employment gap. Colleges and universities, higher education systems and state governments must all work together to contain costs. Both state-run systems and private universities need to expand and strengthen lower-cost, innovative options for delivering coursework. Students would also greatly benefit from a way to empirically evaluate how individual colleges prepare graduates for employment.

The Lumina Foundation's goal of a country in which 60 percent of our young people have college degrees is not a pipe dream. It's a goal that we can and must achieve if we expect to compete in tomorrow's global economy. We can do this, but we have to start today.

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