A new report warns that the United States is falling farther and farther behind other countries in the proportion of adults with a college education. Researchers say the decline could have devastating economic and social consequences for the country.
According to the College Completion Agenda, no more than 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a college degree, and even though most high school graduates enroll in college, only 56 percent earn an undergraduate degree in six years or less. The completion rate drops even more in community colleges, where only 28 percent earn a degree in three years or less.
"It's a very serious problem. People like never before in the United States understand how critical it is to get an education," says Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which commissioned the study. He says the U.S. is losing its competitive advantage in the world because it's not producing nearly enough people with the level of education necessary to keep high-paying jobs from leaving the country.
The study doesn't single out any one cause, in part because there are so many, but it does cite students' transition from high school to college as a major issue. For example, the commission found that more than a quarter of college students require remedial classes in reading, writing and math. Community colleges know this all too well.
At Northern Virginia Community College this time of year, counselors are booked solid advising students about fall courses and services available to them. Mark Mannheimer, academic guidance counselor at the school, says it's not academics. There are other reasons students struggle. The cost of college keeps climbing and many students just can't juggle school, family and work.
"Work can't certainly be the thing that suffers because that's what's generating the money, so it ends up being academics that falls off. The grades suffer and as soon as students start getting lower marks we see them losing faith quickly and eventually they just stop enrolling," Mannheimer says.
Every year students' needs get more expensive and more complex, says financial aid counselor Samaritan Johnson.
"From teenagers to single moms, people who just lost their jobs that are coming back to try and get a degree, so we deal with a lot of students," Johnson says.
Caperton says he agrees the counselors' concerns are real. But, Caperton says, the main reason the U.S. now ranks 12th in college completion among 36 developed nations is because from kindergarten to high school, students are not getting a quality education and even if they do make it to college, they lack focus.
"Too many students go to community college because they don't know what else to do," Caperton says.
The study makes 10 recommendations that Caperton says could help repair the education pipeline, including expanding pre-school, making K-12 education more rigorous, raising the quality of teachers and making college more accessible and affordable.
Caperton says the consensus now is that this nation's education deficit is no less urgent or threatening than the economic crisis we're in.
"If you want to have a good job and a good income, you have to get a better education, and people are deeply concerned about this," Caperton says.
Which is not to say that this can't become one more study gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, says Caperton. But he's betting it won't.