High-level officials including US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter have been travelling across the US to raise public awareness of the need to make higher education more affordable. Their messages are critically important and solutions must be found if more Americans are to gain access to the educational opportunities they need to succeed in today’s economy.
As President Barack Obama indicated in his state of the union address, higher education is an economic imperative. Jobs that require skills and knowledge that can only be obtained through post-secondary education, including an increasing number of advanced manufacturing jobs, are growing much faster than those that do not.
According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 60% of American jobs will require some form of post-secondary education by 2018, including a growing number of jobs demanding skills and knowledge that can best be developed in community colleges. Unfortunately, only 40% of adults in America currently have an associate or bachelor degree.
In decades past, the US ranked first when it came to educating its citizens. The US produced enough graduates to meet the needs of employers and the nation’s economy was the envy of the world.
Today the US has dropped all the way to 15th in the college attainment level of young adults, based on OECD data. And while the unemployment rate hovers above 8% nationally, employers are still struggling to find enough workers to fill the skilled positions that they need to grow.
Clearly, the only path out of this deep hole is through a redesign of the higher education system, with a dual focus on increasing capacity while maintaining or improving quality.
The decline of the US in post-secondary attainment rankings corresponds with a dramatic increase in what it costs to earn a college degree. Tuition fees have outpaced inflation for nearly three decades and the price of obtaining a degree is now prohibitive for far too many Americans.
The nation must both reduce the cost of college and increase the number of students who succeed in post-secondary education. The only real way to do that is to change how higher education is structured, funded and delivered, with the explicit goal of making the system more productive.
Higher education institutions must find ways to graduate significantly more students with high-quality degrees while controlling the costs of delivery.
Part of the solution lies in performance-based funding that rewards institutions not for the number of students they enrol, but for how many of their students succeed. For example, the state of Tennessee is now distributing 70% of its higher education appropriations based on results and quality rather than enrolment.
Introducing business efficiencies like joint purchasing of products and services can also help produce savings that are used to graduate more students at a lower cost. In Ohio, more than $900 million has been saved by public colleges and universities over the last few years.
Developing new models of delivery, such as the competency-based learning model of Western Governors University, can increase the pace and accessibility of learning while lowering costs.
The US must also shift away from a higher education system based on time (the foundation for how credits are awarded) to one based on learning. In a knowledge-based economy, degrees and other credentials – rather than the amount of time a student has spent sitting in a classroom – must represent real skills and knowledge.
For example, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative offers users highly advanced, technologically delivered general education courses, which can be completed much faster than traditional courses, with the same or better student performance.
Degrees and credentials should recognise skills and knowledge however or wherever they are obtained, including through workforce development programmes and higher education.
To better determine a measurement of education quality, Lumina has introduced a new programme called the Degree Qualifications Profile, or DQP.
Drafted by experts in American higher education, the DQP is a framework for clearly defining learning outcomes. Much like the qualifications frameworks that have been developed in many other nations, it is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn their degrees.
Currently, it is being tested at more than 100 institutions in 30 states, representing virtually every sector of non-profit higher education in the US. The hope is that this ‘beta version’ of the DQP will develop into an effective tool for use at every level of education.
Partnerships between the public, private and social sectors are critical to building a higher education system capable of meeting the growing need for skills and knowledge to lead in the 21st century.
It is not enough for employers to sit on the sidelines and clamour about how higher education institutions are not delivering all of the skilled workers that are required. Employers must become more active advocates for policy changes and they must offer programmes that can more effectively address the skills gap.
Lumina Foundation encourages employers to join the national Goal 2025 movement that aims to have 60% of Americans with high-quality degrees by 2025.
Other ways employers can help include: offer tuition-reimbursement plans to employees; make space available to local colleges and universities to offer on-site classes; and support employees who started on the path to a degree but never finished.
As an independent NGO, Lumina is committed to working with a variety of American organisations to enable this critical shift to an affordable, learning-centred higher education system.
If we achieve that goal, we can strengthen the US economy, grow jobs and improve the earning power of more Americans.
* Jamie Merisotis is chief executive and president of the Lumina Foundation, a private, independent foundation committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college.
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