When it comes to competing globally, the United States not only needs to get more students into college, but it also needs them to actually earn their diplomas. That's the conclusion of business leaders and policymakers concerned about the education level of younger generations who will replace 78 million baby boomers heading toward retirement.
Despite improvements since the early 1990s, the US ranks 15th of 29 developed nations in terms of degrees granted: For every 100 students enrolled, countries such as Switzerland, Japan, and Australia award 26 degrees, compared with the 18 in the US. In fact, nearly half of American students at four-year colleges don't finish within six years, according to a report card released Wednesday by a higher-education policy group.
"Historically, our strength has been access [to higher education] and our weakness has been completion," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif., which produces the report card every two years. "We've always said the reason we can't be expected to do so well on completion is because we're generous on access. But now, we see countries catching up to us and surpassing us on access and completion."
The report card, called "Measuring Up 2008," also puts a spotlight on lower graduation rates for segments of the population that are growing: Forty-one percent of African-American college students and 47 percent of Hispanic students earn a bachelor's degree within six years, for instance, compared with 59 percent of whites. "We can't get to international competitiveness ... without doing a better job for these populations," Mr. Callan notes.
College completion has gained the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates. By 2025, the philanthropists want to double the annual number of low-income Americans under age 26 who earn a postsecondary degree or valuable work credential. Over the next three years, their foundation plans to spend up to $500 million on the first phase, which will focus largely on supporting promising efforts at the community-college level.
There are ample possibilities for creating stronger incentives to complete a degree, says Hilary Pennington, the Gates Foundation's director of US special initiatives. "Maybe institutions would get more money for students who came back for a second semester, or perhaps the student would get their loan reduced for each semester they finished," she suggests.
Many students have to take remedial courses before they're ready for college-level work. Only about a third of such students persist beyond the remedial stage, the foundation estimates.
Some solutions are starting to emerge as colleges focus more on retention. Students often arrive lacking study skills, but those "who take a college-success skills course their first semester are much more successful," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.
Progressive colleges are starting to use online courses to quicken remedial work and free up instructors to focus on individual coaching, Ms. Pennington says.
"The Gates money will allow us to do even more experimentation to find out what works," Mr. Boggs says.
Recent progress in college enrollment and completion could be threatened by the recession, which exacerbates longstanding concerns about affordability. In 2007, the average annual cost of a public four-year college equaled 55 percent of income for the lowest-income families.
Not everyone agrees there's an urgent need for the US to produce more graduates. Except in fields such as engineering, many employers demand a college degree as "a screening mechanism, [because] there's such a glut of college graduates that there's no point even bothering to interview people who don't have a college degree," says George Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative-leaning reform group in Raleigh, N.C. Colleges need to focus on quality of learning, not quantity of graduates, he says.
But Mr. Leef agrees that efforts such as the Gates Foundation's focus on improving community colleges could be useful. "A lot more students would be better off if they first enrolled in community colleges to get a better idea if college is really what they want to do," he says.