College-ready teens in short supply

Young people who graduate from high school and go on to college, the traditional source of new workers, will no longer sufficiently fill the huge number of jobs that require postsecondary training.

Recent research demonstrates a troubling inverse relationship between job market and higher-education trends: As the job market increasingly demands postsecondary training, the number of recent high school graduates available to receive such training is leveling off in some states and even declining in others, despite the growth of online education.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the National Center for Higher Education Management (NCHEMS) released a paper June 22, titled “Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College.” The paper finds that with a declining number of high school graduates entering postsecondary education, adult access to and completion of college is critical to maintaining the nation’s economic competitiveness.

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The report’s alarming statistics come as web-based classes have proliferated throughout higher education and provided more options for students who work full time.

By 2018, the number of jobs that demand postsecondary training will rise 16 percent to comprise two-thirds of all jobs, according to a state-by-state analysis.

The report finds that even today, adults who have completed only high school are twice as likely to be out of work as adults with a bachelor’s degree.

“Employers like people who have graduated with the specific skill set for the occupation they’re in,” said Vickie Choitz, a senior policy analyst at CLASP, citing nurses as a common example.

Choitz said employers are also interested in softer skills that students often acquire in a college environment, such as time management, interpersonal and leadership skills, and professional behavior.

Owing to changing demographics, however, as the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education increases in the next decade, there will be no national growth in the number of high school graduates.

In some states with an aging population, particularly states such as Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, the number of high school graduates will decline by 18 to 20 percent, according to the CLASP report.

Young people who graduate from high school and go on to college, the traditional source of new workers, will no longer sufficiently fill the huge number of jobs that require postsecondary training.

It becomes imperative for nontraditional students to help close the gap between qualified workers and jobs available, the report said.

“The country’s economic competitiveness rests on more people accessing postsecondary education and credentials,” said Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at NCHEMS and co-author of the report. “And with the aging of our population and decline in number of recent high school graduates entering college and the workforce, we need to make sure even more adults and nontraditional students have the skills they need to fill tomorrow’s jobs.”

Nontraditional students already make up a substantial portion of the undergraduate population: According to a 2008 report compiled by the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success and CLASP, more than 47 percent of undergraduate students are considered “independent” because they are 24 years or older, married, responsible for legal dependents, orphans or wards of the court, or veterans of the U.S. armed services.

The “Not Kid Stuff Anymore” report projects that between 2009 and 2019, adult enrollments will increase by twice as much as enrollments by traditional-age students.

The report calls for changes in federal student aid policies to assist the flow of adult and nontraditional students into postsecondary education, and eventually into the workforce.

“It is critical that federal student aid be responsive to the needs of adults who often must juggle work, family, and school responsibilities and who are on their own financially,” the report said.

Aid must be sufficient to allow adult students not only access to, but also completion of postsecondary education.

“Students without sufficient aid may pile additional work hours on top of their existing employment and class schedule, or they may decide to take fewer courses per term,” states a report titled “Green Lights & Red Tape,” released in December 2007 by The Institute for College Access and Success. “Working excessive hours is also linked with lower rates of college success and completion.”

With budget proposals in Congress threatening to cut the Pell Grant program, funding for adult and nontraditional student aid is precarious.

“It seems short-sighted to disinvest in these programs now when we really should be maintaining investments in these programs and making sure we have post-secondary educated workers for the future,” said Choitz. “Workers can be much more productive towards paying off the national debt with wages coming from bachelor’s or other post-secondary degrees than they would if they were high school graduates.”

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