Graduation Rates: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

graduationOne of the main goals President Barack Obama laid out during his first term was to return America to its previously held position as the country with the highest number of college graduates per capita by 2020. This American Graduation Initiative (AGI) requires increasing the percentage of college graduates in the US workforce by 50% by the end of the decade. In order for the AGI to be accomplished, the number of college graduates would have to increase by an annual 16% every year from 2010-2020. However, the problem in reaching this goal may be rooted in low graduation rates, rather than low enrollment numbers.

America2020 is a private sector approach to the same problem, focusing specifically on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates. Their plan is to encourage STEM degree completion by committing industry professionals to volunteer their time mentoring and teaching students in these fields. There will be an estimated 10 million STEM job openings by the year 2020, and OECD data reports that US students tend to have a low interest in science. This approach has already seen significant improvements in graduation rates with the schools involved and those students who have participated in the program are far better prepared for college.  Citizen Schools, one of the major forces behind the America2020 initiative, along with representatives from the White House and several big-name companies recently convened here at the Wilson Center to discuss details of its implementation and how they could be involved.

The American Dream 2.0 is an initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that, “offers a comprehensive framework for how the hundreds of billions invested in the financial aid system can increase college access, affordability, and completion”. According to the Foundation’s findings, 46% of students enrolled in higher education institutions fail to graduate within six years. This rate increases to 63% for African Americans and 57% for Hispanics. In addition, total annual borrowing for college has more than doubled in the past ten years, as tuition rises faster than family income or inflation. These statistics are worrying, because those who borrow money for school but end up dropping-out without earning a degree have higher unemployment rates than those who graduate.

Good news comes from high school completion rates, which reached a record high in 2010 at 78.6%. While this is certainly heartening, fewer than half of those in the class of 2012 were ‘college ready’ as determined by the College Board last fall. In order to meet the challenges of President Obama’s AGI, education policymakers need to focus not only on college enrollment rates, but also on access, affordability, completion rates, and high school rigor. Although in the current fiscal climate, large scale investments in education may be harder and harder to implement, the effects of education investment on the productivity and success of our nation’s young people are immeasurably important.

By: Ben Copper

Sources: Huffington Post, PR Newswire, White House records, EducationSector.org, Citizenschools.org

Photo Credit: flickr user: Smithsonian Institution

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