US: Boost graduate ratio to 60%

A private US foundation has proposed increasing the proportion of Americans with "high-quality degrees and credentials" to 60% of the population within 15 years. President and CEO of the Indianopolis-based Lumina Foundation, Jamie Merisotis, told a conference in Miami the goal was to boost the proportion of higher-education qualified Americans from the current 40% to 60% by 2025.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative University, Merisotis said Lumina was working on increasing completion rates via its funding commitments to college preparation, success and productivity.

He quoted the findings of labour economist Anthony Carnevale who estimated that by 2018, 63% of all jobs in the US would require some form of post-secondary education or training.

"Carnevale's analysis shows that for virtually every major job category, more post-secondary education is critical to job success," Merisotis said.

"In 1973, only 38% of office workers had some kind of post-secondary education. Today, nearly 70% have, with 40% having at least a bachelor degree."

He said the goal of having 60% of the population with a university qualification was a national priority because higher education was a prerequisite to success in a knowledge-based society and economy.

The social and economic opportunities facing America could best be addressed by educating many more people beyond high school.

"As we attain the goal, we improve the economy, strengthen civic engagement and reduce the costs of crime, poverty and health care and, in short, improve the human condition."

Higher education attainment rates among adults, first-generation college-going students, low-income students and students of colour were significantly lower than those of other students, Merisotis said.

"This gap has endured for decades and is now widening. This attainment gap is alarming given the country's demographic trends."

Based on research and experience, Merisotis said the Lumina Foundation believed reaching its goal by 2025 was possible - if the US addressed three critical outcomes:

* Students were prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school.
* Higher education completion rates were improved significantly.
* Higher education productivity was increased to expand capacity and serve more students.

In a description of its "Big Goal" ambitions on the Lumina website, the foundation says each critical outcome depends on the achievement of at least one intermediate step.

"By 2013, the foundation expects to demonstrate progress on its intermediate outcomes. This progress will come as a result of successful execution of the foundation's strategies, planned over a four-year period - from 2009 through 2012. The foundation will develop metrics for each outcome over the short, intermediate and long terms," the document states.

"As the nation's largest private foundation focused exclusively on getting more Americans into and through higher education, Lumina has a unique leadership opportunity - and responsibility - to create a national sense of urgency so as to stimulate action in higher education and public policy to achieve the big goal.

"The knowledge economy requires Americans to develop the skills that are demanded in a globally competitive environment. As a result, increasing higher education attainment is critical to the US economy.

"The implications of this shift toward a more highly skilled workforce cannot be overstated. For generations, the American economy created large numbers of middle-class jobs that did not require high levels of skill or knowledge.

"Because of global competition, these jobs are rapidly disappearing. It is not that low-skill jobs do not exist in the US; it is that the Americans who hold them are not likely to enter or remain in the middle class.

"They are not likely to have access to quality health care, save for retirement or assure their children access to higher education. In short, completing some form of higher education is now critical for reaching the middle class."

The document says Lumina's big goal is based on the reality that America faces social and economic opportunities best addressed by educating many more people beyond high school. On current estimates, to achieve the 60% level by 2025, the US higher education system must produce 23 million more graduates than current rates.

"Obviously, we can't close this gap overnight. But, for example, if we can start to increase the rate of attainment each year and produce 150,000 more graduates than the year before - an annual increase of about 5% - we will reach the big goal by 2025."