The Coming College Decline

Ronald Brownstein, National Journal, January 14, 2015

The best way to understand the stakes in President Obama’s proposal to massively expand access to community college is to consider a stark forecast from prominent demographer William Frey.

Frey has calculated that if the U.S. does not improve its college completion rates for young people, the share of Americans holding at least a four-year degree will start to decline as soon as 2020. After that, his model forecasts that the share of college-educated Americans will not climb back to its level in 2015 (just under one-third) at least through 2050.

That’s an almost unprecedented prospect for the American economy: The percentage of Americans holding at least a four-year degree has increased steadily since at least 1940, according to the Census Bureau. It’s also an ominous prospect in an international economic competition increasingly centered on knowledge and innovation.

The reason the U.S. faces the risk of declining educational achievement is its failure to sufficiently respond to the profound demographic change reshaping society. The current school year marks the first time in American history when a majority of all K-12 public school students nationwide are minorities. Minority students already comprise nearly two-fifths of high-school graduates and will reach about half by 2023, the Education Department projects.

This cresting wave of diversity is reaching onto college campuses. The minority share of the entering class at two- and four-year colleges has increased from about one-fourth in 1995 to nearly two-fifths now. But completion rates for African-American and Hispanic students who start college remain considerably lower than for whites (or Asian-Americans). Because those black and Hispanic students make up an increasing share of the college pipeline, it is their high attrition rate that creates the risk that the nation’s overall share of college graduates will shift into reverse.

That will quickly affect employers, because the Census Bureau has projected that through 2030 the number of working-age whites will fall by 15 million. All of the growth in the workforce through then will come from Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African-Americans (in that order). Frey projects that by 2030 minorities will become a majority of all young (18-29) adults. “The fact that the labor force will continue to ‘brown’ from the younger ages on upwards means that a great deal of attention must be paid to increasing minority postsecondary education so that the skill levels of our entire workforce stays competitive,” says Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the insightful recent book Diversity Explosion.

That’s where the sweeping plan Obama announced last week fits in. Obama proposed to spend $60 billion over 10 years to ensure that all students can complete community college at no cost. Students would need to maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and complete their degree in three years or less. Community colleges would need to demonstrate that their courses either facilitate transfer to four-year institutions or instill occupational skills that lead to postcollege employment. States would need to contribute one-fourth of the cost. But, fully implemented, the plan could both broaden access for students and propel overdue institutional improvement at community colleges across the country. “This is about reform in community colleges as well as increasing access,” says Cecilia Munoz, Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser.

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Obama’s plan represents the beginning of a long conversation, as it’s unlikely to pass a Republican Congress. And it would work only if it genuinely demands improvement from community colleges, which admittedly face great challenges, but too often perform inadequately.¬†{snip}

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