When the Lumina Foundation was established in 2000, it was created with one goal in mind: to increase the number of students graduating from college in the U.S. For the past five years, that goal has had solid numbers tied to it—increase the percentage of Americans who hold high-quality degrees to 60% by 2025.
Given that the national completion rate currently sits at 39.3%, an increase of only .5% over last year, Lumina’s goal may seem quite lofty. But it’s not the only one. President Barack Obama seeks to increase the percentage of college graduates to 60% by 2020. While Lumina’s goal would count college completion rates among adults 25-64 years old, the president’s goal considers only 25-34 year-olds.
No Longer Internationally Competitive
The U.S.’s rates are beginning to be considered low compared to other countries as well. The CollegeBoard Advocacy and Policy Center, which has its own goal of boosting completion rates to 55% by 2025, ranks the U.S. 12th worldwide, even based on its calculation of a 41.6% completion rate as of 2010. North and South Korea, Canada, the Russian Federation, and Japan have all met that goal and rank highest for completion rates worldwide. New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Israel, and Australia all boast higher rates than the U.S.
The U.S.’s current graduation rate once was good enough to make the country globally competitive, but not anymore, said Lumina’s vice president of program development, Jim Applegate. For the U.S., college completion rates are not, and should not be, just a matter of pride. Instead, he said, they are a matter of economic survival.
Not Optional; Not Political
“Ramping up our graduation rates is not an option,” he said. “The health of our economy and the health of our democracy depend on it. By 2018, two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. will require some kind of post-secondary education – some certificates, some associate degrees, but primarily bachelor’s degrees – and if we don’t do this, we put a real albatross around the neck of the economy.”
Policy change is required, he said, to simplify the “broken” financial aid system. It won’t require more dollars, he said, just better use of existing ones.
“Right now the financial aid system only focuses on traditional students,” he said. “Many low-income families need a college degree just to figure out how the system works.”
Education and public finance should not be made into a political issue, he said, acknowledging that debates can heat up especially during Presidential election season.
“If there should be any non-partisan issue, it should be college attainment and producing more, and better, graduates,” he said. “Anyone who believes in this country and low unemployment, should get behind this.”
Reaching New Learners
The big picture, the “view from 30,000 feet,” Applegate said, means the U.S. needs to dramatically increase the participation in college by groups who are traditionally underrepresented – low-income, first-generation students, and adult learners – and who haven’t been reached before. Programs that promote access and information, telling students how to go to college and how to pay for college, should be put into place. And as a country, there needs to be much more support and education that prepares high school seniors and graduates for college.
Essentially, the country needs 23 million more college graduates in eight years. Boosting the high school graduation rate, then increasing college participation to 70%, will be a great start, but won’t solve the problem, Applegate said.
More specifically, improving college completion rates means redesigning the entire higher education system, he said. The focus needs to shift from “seat time” and toward proven skills and understanding, or competency.
More programs need to reach the 26.2 million Americans with some college credits but no degree. Competency-based programs, such as those on which Western Governors University were founded, and which other schools, such as Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin, have begun to introduce, will be a large part of the solution, Applegate said.
“WGU has grown 30% each year without raising tuition in close to eight years,” he said. “There is criticism from some about the quality of education, but what are our assurances that degrees earned in the traditional classroom are of quality?”
Online education offered through traditional universities is part of the solution as well, but it is still largely offered by schools that operate under the current higher education system.
“There need to be more colleges coming to the student, rather than the student coming to college,” he said. “Online programs are part of the answer, but they’re still part of the (larger higher education) system… Technology isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s certainly part of the answer.”
While Applegate and Lumina advocate degrees, he said he believes earning undergraduate or career certificates can be a great starting point for many students to get them into a field and allow them to work as they complete higher education.
Though the .5% increase in educational attainment is nowhere near what the country needs to reach 60% by 2020, Applegate said he believes the goal is still attainable, and Lumina is doing everything it can to help. The foundation funds 19 initiatives nationwide to replicate successful programs. Lumina’s plan, among other things, is to create a sense of urgency across the country.
“We wouldn’t have set the goal if we didn’t believe in it, and I do,” he said. “There is no more significant challenge we must meet. Can we? If we don’t, we’re in trouble… We need to mobilize at every level to make this a priority. Other countries have done this, so it’s not impossible. We need to spark the change I know this country is capable of, like the GI Bill, or requiring high school diplomas—things that changed the face of education in America.”