Measuring Up 2008, the fifth in a series of biennial report cards by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, reveals that America is making some advances in preparing students for college and providing them with access to higher education. However, writes Patrick M Callan, the independent Center's president, "other nations are advancing more quickly than the United States; we continue to slip behind other countries in improving college opportunities for our residents. In addition, large disparities in higher education performance by race/ethnicity, by income, and by state limit our nation's ability to advance the educational attainment of our workforce and citizenry - and thereby remain competitive globally."
The United States' world leadership in college access has eroded steadily, as reflected in the international comparisons of the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled in college, Callum reports. "In college completion, which has never been a strength of American higher education, the US ranks 15th among 29 countries compared."
The US adult population aged 35 and older ranks among the world leaders in the percentage who have college degrees, reflecting educational progress of earlier times, but among 25- to 34-year-olds the US population has slipped to 10th in the percentage who have an associate degree or higher. "This relative erosion of our national 'educational capital' reflects the lack of significant improvement in the rates of college participation and completion in recent years," writes Callum in an essay on Measuring Up 2008.
Young Americans graduating from high school on time are now more likely to take courses that prepare them for college and to enrol in college, compared with earlier this decade or in the 1990s, the survey found. "But far too many graduates leave high school unprepared to succeed in college-level courses and need remediation when they enrol. In addition, larger proportions than in the past fail to graduate from high school." Reduced high school graduation decreases the pool of potential college graduates and college-educated workers.
Measuring Up indicators show access to college to be "fairly flat". The likelihood that a high school freshman will enrol in college by age 19 has improved modestly this decade, from 39% to 42%, and the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds in college has grown more modestly. But the enrolment of adults in college-level education has declined.
Low college completion rates, as with declining rates of school completion, are depriving the US of college-educated and trained workers needed to keep the workforce competitive globally - and there are substantial disparities in educational opportunity and achievement, Callum writes.
The high school graduation rate has decreased for all racial and ethnic groups over the past three decades, and differences between racial and ethnic groups persist. By the middle of this decade the national on-time high school graduation rate was 77.5%, while the rate for African Americans was 69.1% and for Hispanics it was 72.3%.
Disparities in college access are closely linked to race, ethnicity and income, and while college attendance has increased for all groups over the past three decades, gaps in enrolment have not diminished. For high school graduates, 73% of whites, 56% of blacks and 58% of Hispanics enrol in college the next fall. In terms of family income, 91% of high school students from families in the highest income group enrol in college, while the rate for students from middle-income families is 78% and for the lowest income group it is 52%.
Racial and ethnic disparities are also found in college completion rates, Callum reveals. For example, 59% of white students complete a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling in college, against 47% of Hispanic students, 41% of African Americans, and 39% of Native Americans. State-by-state variations represent another source of disparity and inequity.
Measuring Up found that deterioration of college affordability throughout the US contributed to disparities in higher education opportunity and attainment. The rising costs of college tuition and other necessities continues to outpace family incomes, which are mostly flat or declining.
If this trend continued it "would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enrol," Callum writes. Also: "More students are borrowing, and they are borrowing more. Over the last decade, student borrowing has more than doubled." The report found that the financial aid priorities of colleges and universities were out of synch with public policy priorities, with middle- and upper-income students receiving larger grants than those from low-income families.
Measuring Up concludes that some states have made some modest advances in higher education performance, but they are overshadowed by larger gains by other countries, and by the deterioration of college affordability. The relative erosion of national 'educational capital', writes Callum, "has occurred at a time when we need more people to be college educated and trained because of Baby Boomer retirements and rising skill requirements."
Meanwhile, states are grappling with big budget shortfalls. Measuring Up recommends that, rather than responding as in the past by allowing tuition and student aid policy "to play second fiddle to institutional finance", states should establish policies that balance the financial burden for higher education among states, higher education institutions, students and families. Callum writes:
"This is both a short- and long-term strategy that makes state policy more transparent, grounds it in the needs and financial circumstances of state residents, establishes college affordability as a priority, protects educational opportunity, and in the process helps to meet the needs of states and the nation for a well-educated workforce and citizenry."
Measuring Up 2008 report on the National Center site
Full Callun article on the National Center site
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