|| The Public Policy Challenge to Educational Attainment
The 2002 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation reflects broad acceptance, at least in principle, of a national priority on education that serves all young Americans effectively.4 This principle must be applied to the entirety of American education. From preschool to college, the economic and societal imperative is to raise the knowledge and skill levels of virtually all Americans-to make it easy and probable that most of them complete high school or the equivalent and at least two years of further education and training.
Our discussion centers on public policies needed to educate most Americans to higher levels, and thereby to significantly enlarge the country's "educational capital," the reservoir of individual knowledge and skills that constitutes the country's major societal and economic asset. Particular emphasis should be placed on the nation's young adults (18- to 24-year-olds) and working-age adults (25- to 49-year-olds)-workers and future workers in their prime working years.
Within the American federal system, the primary public policy responsibility for elementary, secondary, and higher education resides with the states. Explicit public policy goals and sustained policy attention by the states and higher education leaders are necessary conditions for increasing educational attainment. Although state policy will not, in itself, assure unprecedented educational gains, these gains are unlikely in the absence of an effective policy "infrastructure." Such infrastructure would set clear goals and use incentives to leverage change in diverse areas, including accountability, public finance, and governance. Redesign of state policy to address the economic and societal conditions of the twenty-first century is a daunting task, one that must reach myriad elements of higher education, including admissions, institutional design, curricula, and assessment. In the absence of a supportive public policy framework, educational change on a large scale is unlikely.
Creating the framework for new public policies will require reaching a balance between, on one hand, the interests of the state and the public, and, on the other, those of colleges and universities and their faculty. The states' heavy responsibility for higher education carries with it potential for significant control. Historically, however, the states' de jure control has been exercised lightly, in large part because of an implicit consensus that the interests of higher education were synonymous with the public interest and that the public interest would be best served by substantial institutional autonomy. To put it another way, political leaders have generally deferred to college and university administrators and faculty. This consensus and deference have eroded over time as higher education has increased its student enrollment levels, numbers of campuses, and share of state budgets. Nevertheless, the concept of institutional autonomy remains powerful.
The balancing of institutional and public interests will be critical and difficult at a time when higher education is central to the welfare of most individuals and of society. Requirements for public accountability are certain, we believe, to be more demanding than the historic, almost exclusive reliance of professional judgment of educators; professional judgment, we believe, must be supported and supplemented by evidence. An effective balance will be achieved if, within the higher education community and among public policymakers, there is leadership around and commitment for expanding access and attainment, as well as appropriate funding and accountability. Absent such agreement, counterproductive public policy interventions are likely-for example, the misuse of standardized testing. If educating most of the people is as important as we believe it is, society is highly unlikely to excuse higher education from substantive accountability for its work.
Enrolling the nation's current "tidal wave" of young adults now graduating from high schools through 2009 in higher education is only part of the challenge.5 The demand for educated workers requires that more individuals-many of whom now attend either poor or mediocre high schools and many of whom dropped out of high school years ago-must be seen as potential students for education and training beyond high school. The focus on young adults (18- to 24-year-olds) and working-age adults (25- to 49-year-olds) targets the age groups most likely to yield the greatest return on public investment because of their future earning years as workers.
Over the past two decades, the principal attention of the country has been on elementary and secondary education, but the problems of underachievement that begin in elementary and secondary education are systemic and not confined to those levels. For every 100 ninth graders, 67 graduate from high school, 38 enter college, 26 are still enrolled in college after their sophomore year, and 18 graduate from college within 6 years. That is, only 18 out of 100 ninth graders graduate from high school on time, go directly to college, return for their second year, and graduate from college in six years.6
The achievement of nearly universal high school completion and participation in education and training beyond high school represents a new challenge to all of American education and to the public policies that undergird it. The changes-in both policy and practice-required to dramatically raise educational capital may be of the order of magnitude of the changes the nation experienced after World War II, when the elite system of higher education was transformed into a system of mass higher education to accommodate far more young adults and veterans than many thought possible. American education as currently configured will continue to serve many students well, but it is unlikely to realize the ambitious goal of effectively serving a larger and more heterogeneous population without significant modification.
The postsecondary education sector-including public, private, for-profit, and not-for-profit institutions-represents the nation's principal resource for the education of all American adults who are able and motivated to benefit from education and training beyond high school. These resources must be mobilized in the interest of ratcheting up educational attainment of entire state populations. With all reasonable speed, almost all higher education institutions will have to collaborate with high schools, adult learning centers, and community organizations to ensure that most American adults achieve a high school diploma or its equivalent and are prepared to undertake some form of postsecondary education and training. At the same time, colleges and universities will be called upon to accommodate unprecedented numbers of students in certificate and degree programs. In many instances, partnerships with the private sector and other large employers will also be required. In the remainder of this paper, we offer selective perspectives on public policy changes to increase America's educational capital.
4On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This act is the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since ESEA was enacted in 1965. It defines the federal role in K-12 education and is intended to help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers.
5In 2009, at the peak of the tidal wave, approximately 3.2 million students will graduate from
American high schools, according to projections from the National Center for Education Statistics,
Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education,
6See the Web site of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems,