The imperative of higher-education reform: More debt, fewer jobs

62 percent of all U.S. jobs now require postsecondary education; that number is expected to increase to 75 percent by 2020.

America’s colleges and universities are an extraordinary asset for our nation, and the envy of the world. Our universities can claim a substantial amount of credit for the fact that we have more Nobel laureates than any other country and that we lead the world in innovation, in fields from communications to medicine.

Unfortunately, our system is quietly slipping into a crisis brought on by inattention to costs and lack of discipline around federal programs and spending, and exacerbated by the growing competition from other countries determined to prepare their students for success in a global economy.

While our institutions may be leaders in many disciplines, students are not accessing postsecondary education at the rate they should, and those who do find themselves confronted with significant challenges, including the rapidly rising cost of higher education. At the other end of the process, too many students who pursue higher education fail to successfully complete their degrees, and even those who do finish often find themselves with skills mismatched to today’s job market.

“This country is putting more money into higher education than at any point in history, yet a postsecondary education continues to become more expensive for students and their families.”

Increasingly, a postsecondary education is becoming a basic requirement for economic success. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 62 percent of all U.S. jobs now require postsecondary education; that number is expected to increase to 75 percent by 2020. But the current emphasis on the standard four-year degree may be misplaced.

For instance, the Department of Labor found that less than half of the fastest growing professions will require such a degree, while two-year degrees, occupational certificates, and apprenticeships are likely to be the most appropriate preparation for a wide variety of fields.

For years we have focused on increasing access to college—an important goal, to be sure. But somehow success in college has been lost in the shuffle of priorities. Despite spending more than twice as much per student as other developed countries, our degree attainment rate lags behind.

Currently, only 27 percent of community college students and 57 percent of those pursuing bachelor’s degrees will finish within three or six years, respectively. Completion rates are even lower for minority students.

Meanwhile, students and their families face skyrocketing prices for higher education and, partly as a result, ever heavier debt burdens. Since 1982, the cost of college has increased by 439 percent—dramatically higher than the growth even in the cost of health care. These costs represent a growing burden on not just families, but taxpayers who foot the bill for a patchwork of federal financial aid programs.