Ideas

Ideas | Derek Bok

Why America needs more college graduates ASAP

Jeremy Traum for the Boston Globe

More and more, news articles about America’s colleges have been focusing on racial preferences in admissions, sexual assaults on campus, rising tuitions, and mounting student debt. Meanwhile, however, another problem in higher education has attracted little attention, even though it promises to be far more consequential in the long run and much harder to solve.

After a century of global leadership in educating our population, the United States has recently seen one country after another outstrip us in the percentage of young adults earning college degrees. Concerned by the effects of this trend on economic growth, President Obama announced to Congress in 2009 that America would massively increase the number of college graduates in order to regain the lead in the education of our workforce. The hope was to raise the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with an associate’s degree or more from 41 percent to 60 percent by 2020.

At the end of the Obama administration the chances of meeting his goal were already vanishingly small, and the new administration is unlikely to improve matters. How much this will matter to the economy remains to be seen, but most economists believe that much higher graduation rates will be needed to achieve robust economic growth over the next decade or two. Campus protests may grab headlines, but our priority should be to commit the money and expertise necessary to raise the percentage of Americans with degrees.

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A hefty increase in college graduates would also bring a host of other benefits — improved health, less crime and substance abuse, fewer divorces, better educated children, increased voting rates, lower unemployment, fewer adults on welfare, and even higher levels of happiness and well-being. Not least, it would give millions of young people opportunities for higher paid, more satisfying careers. It would breathe new life into the American Dream, at a moment when studies show that upward mobility in the United States is lower than in a number of other advanced countries.

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Why are colleges unable to graduate more students? One reason, surely, is that most of the additional young people who would need to earn degrees are poorly prepared for college and hard to teach successfully. Another difficulty is that the community colleges and regional universities that will educate the vast majority of these students have lost almost 20 percent of their state support since 2008.

It is unrealistic to expect these colleges to enroll and graduate millions more Americans while receiving less money per student than any other sector of the higher education system. At present, these colleges rely heavily on part-time instructors hired on a year-to-year basis for very low salaries. Their teaching loads leave them little time to experiment with promising new methods of remediating underprepared students or to offer sufficient support services to help them graduate.

Many states have tried to increase graduation rates by making a substantial share of their annual appropriations dependent on meeting ambitious graduation goals negotiated with campus leaders. But raising the financial stakes for awarding more degrees cannot succeed if educators do not know how to improve. Colleges may even feel impelled to lower academic standards to graduate more students, an outcome that will help no one. Instead, governments must find a way to increase their appropriations for community and regional colleges.

Money alone, however, will not overcome the challenge of raising graduation rates sufficiently to meet the economy’s needs. New ideas are also required. At present, intriguing proposals abound, but few have been rigorously tested, a serious deficiency since most innovative ideas for improving education fail to work when tested on a scale large enough to make a difference.

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At present, of every $100 Congress spends on research, only 43 cents is allocated to education scholars, and most of that meager sum goes to studies on public schools rather than colleges and universities. As a result, only a handful of new ideas for improving higher education are evaluated each year, compared with the many hundreds of tests conducted annually to assess new drugs and medical procedures.

At the very least, funding should be provided to test and help pay for proposals with a reasonable probability of success. For example, several community colleges in New York have recently experimented with limiting student choice to a few well-structured programs that lead to good jobs while providing more financial aid and added counseling to keep students on track. Although this plan requires additional funds, it promises to reduce dropout rates sufficiently to lower the average cost per graduate.

The funds needed for the measures described above are modest — far more modest than the sums required for measures of doubtful efficacy, such as the recent proposals by Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton to make public colleges tuition-free. In time, the necessary expenditures should repay themselves handsomely through faster economic growth and greater opportunities for young Americans to live better, more satisfying lives. The sums involved are therefore not just another public expenditure, but an investment in our future that we cannot afford to pass up.

Derek Bok is president emeritus of Harvard University. His new book is “The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges.”