Two years after Obama’s college initiative, major obstacles remain

Obama's 2020 goal could already be well out of reach, experts warn.

Estranged from his family at age 17, Jake Boyd put himself through Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit by working nearly 100 hours a week: 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a car wash, followed by four-hour shifts as a security guard at an apartment complex.

It took Boyd almost five years to earn his associate degree in law enforcement from Macomb, the campus where President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative in 2009, setting a goal of restoring the country to first place by 2020 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.

Many students like Boyd just give up.

Only one in five of those who enroll in community colleges — and, in some states, barely one in 10 — graduates in three years, while only about half of students who attend universities get their bachelor’s degrees within six years, helping drag the United States from first to 10th in the world in the proportion of the population that has graduated from college.

It’s a trend that Obama, in a speech on the Macomb campus, promised to reverse.

Yet conversations with dozens of experts and reviews of available data show that obstacles on the road to graduation have gotten only greater in the two years since then. Few believe the 2020 target will be met.

“The outlook is not good,” says Michael Lovenheim, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and co-author of a 2010 study that found students are taking more, not less, time to graduate thanks to such things as continued deep cuts in public higher education budgets and services, enrollment increases, and steep hikes in tuition that are forcing more students to work.

The study by Lovenheim and his colleagues upended the common contention by universities that graduation rates are falling because students are arriving unprepared.

American high school graduates are, in fact, better prepared than ever, it found, but most go to unselective community colleges and public universities where budgets and services have been deeply cut, classes are large, and per-student expenditures are low.