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Our National Underperformance
Is American higher education still the best in the world?

(Photo by John Troha, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
How effectively do the nation, the states and our colleges and universities meet the needs of the American people for education and training beyond high school? Since 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has addressed this question in its four editions of Measuring Up, its biennial report card on American higher education. Based on quantitative indicators, each issue of Measuring Up has assessed national and state performance in higher education through the baccalaureate degree. The indicators incorporate the contributions of two- and four-year, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit institutions of higher education.

I take this opportunity to emphasize two related and most troublesome aspects of our most recent report card: the international comparisons and college affordability.

First, Measuring Up 2006 introduced—for the first time-an international perspective to the report card. We found that the United States no longer occupies its historic position of world leadership in critical areas, including college accessibility. In these areas, our national progress has stalled, with little or no improvement since about 1990, while many nations—our economic competitors—made great strides forward. As James B. Hunt Jr. and Garrey Carruthers state pointedly in their foreword to Measuring Up 2006, these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that American higher education is "the best in the world."

Historically, college access has been one of our great comparative strengths. Our country once prided itself on each generation being better educated than the preceding one, but our progress has now stalled for a decade and a half. The likelihood of an American ninth grader enrolling in college four years later is about forty percent. A handful of states have improved on this and other indicators of higher education participation, but more states have regressed. Gaps in college attendance between whites and non-whites, and between low-income and high-income Americans are large and have not narrowed. The United States is still the world leader in working-age adults, but the proportion of adults attending college part-time has declined over the last decade and a half.

Rates of completion of college programs-associate's degrees, baccalaureate degrees, and certificates—have improved only modestly, with almost all the improvement in the certificate category. Measuring Up 2006 shows that completion rates remain the Achilles heel of American higher education: Only about two-thirds of students complete bachelor's degrees in six years. The United States ranks sixteenth among twenty-six nations compared internationally. Even the states with the highest completion grades in Measuring Up 2006's state-by-state comparisons rank low in international comparisons.

Second, the international comparisons are troublesome, but our state-by-state findings on college affordability approach tragedy. The report card measures college affordability as the proportion of annual family income in each state required to pay for a year of college education at two- and four-year colleges and universities, after all college costs and financial aid are taken into account. By this indicator—the most important measure from the perspective of students and families—college affordability continues to deteriorate across the nation. The decline has contributed to flat college access and completion rates, and to the persistent gaps in college enrollment between low-income and other Americans.

Since 1992, the increase in college costs, particularly tuition, has significantly outpaced growth in family income for all but the 20 percent of American families with the highest income. Forty-three states received grades of "F" in college affordability in Measuring Up 2006. Simply stated, paying for college is now more difficult for students and families than it was fifteen years ago.

Shortly after the release of Measuring Up 2006, with 43 failing grades in college affordability, a new report using a rigorous methodology confirmed our findings. That report, "Mortgaging Our Future: How Financial Barriers to College Undercut America's Global Competitiveness," was issued by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent nonpartisan panel that advises Congress. The report offers a powerful analysis that projects the human costs to individuals and to our society of diminished college access for low- and moderate-income students. It estimated that in the 1990s between one million and 1.6 million academically qualified low- and moderate-income students with four-year college aspirations did not earn bachelor's degrees within eight years of high school graduation because of financial barriers. An additional 1.4 to 2.4 million students of similar economic and educational characteristics are projected to be at similar risk of not obtaining the bachelor's degree in this decade.

The adverse consequences of decreased college affordability are pervasive. Escalating tuition discourages some students from enrolling in the rigorous high school courses required to prepare for college. Some students "trade down," choosing less expensive colleges rather than those that best meet their educational goals and qualifications. Others take on large debts or seek to minimize debt by working more hours than advisable during the academic year, both of which can cause academic difficulties, lengthen time in college or even jeopardize college completion. Current college graduates—and many students who never graduate—are the most heavily indebted young Americans in our history. Large debt burdens may discourage some college graduates from advanced study if that requires accumulating more debt, or from careers that are not highly remunerative.

Student financial assistance from all sources has increased by 140 percent since 1991, but has been outpaced by increases in the cost of college attendance, particularly tuition. As the escalation of tuition has squeezed the middle-income groups, state and federal governments have allocated larger shares of financial assistance to them through tax credits, merit aid and tax advantaged savings programs that do not require demonstration of financial need or, as with federal tax credits, exclude the most financially needy from participation. Compounding governmental action, colleges and universities have shifted their own aid dollars to recruitment incentives for more affluent students who bring the higher SAT and ACT scores that weigh heavily in college rankings.

America's regression in college affordability is largely a function of the tuition and financial aid policies of colleges, universities and government—the cumulative consequence, not of circumstances, but of deliberate choices.

In summary, the overall verdict of Measuring Up 2006 on American higher education is underperformance:

  • Underperformance in preparing the next generations of Americans to replace the highly educated baby boomers who are moving toward retirement years.
  • Underperformance in giving the nation a college educated workforce that can compete internationally for the best jobs and the highest standards of living in the knowledge-based global economy.
  • Underperformance in maintaining and enhancing opportunity and upward mobility for the heterogeneous generations of young Americans currently in the educational pipeline.

Our national underperformance contrasts sharply with the efforts of other nations, and the educational gains those efforts are producing. The improvements in higher education participation and completion in other nations derive from their recognition of the realities of the global economy, of the competitive advantages of a college educated workforce, and of the will to meet these challenges with renewed urgency.

A New York Times editorial review of Measuring Up 2006 warned: "Unless America renews its commitment to the higher education policies that made the country great, we could soon find ourselves at the mercy of an increasingly global economy. And if we let ourselves hit bottom, it could take generations for us to dig ourselves out." I agree.

—Patrick M. Callan

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National CrossTalk Fall 2006



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