College Completion Rises, Still Short of Necessary Levels

March 02, 2012

By Sam Williford, Associate Consultant (MPA '13)

“Did you get accepted?”  While spring has yet to start, admissions season is in full swing.  As many individuals wait to know the fate of applications to colleges and universities across the country, the vast majority of Americans will not be attending any higher education institution this year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of last March, 30.4 percent of people over age 25 in the United States held at least a bachelor’s degree, and 10.9 percent held a graduate degree, up from 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent 10 years earlier.  However, according to a report last year from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) titled “Education at a Glance 2011”, the U.S. was 16th out of the 36 nations listed in the percentage of 25 to 34 year olds with a college degree.

In the global economy, as automation and foreign competition eliminate routine labor, it is ever more critical for individuals to have a quality education.  The U.S. Department of Labor finds that 62 percent of all U.S. jobs now require two-year or four-year degrees and higher.  However, only 38 percent of the population has reached that level of educational attainment, leading to a skills mismatch.

Unfortunately, the problem is actually getting worse in the United States.  “The one thing that you see today if you just look across age groups, the United States is quite alone in that young people entering the labor market are not better educated than the people leaving the labor market,” said Andreas Schleicher, head of OECD’s Indicators and Analysis Division. “There’s nothing that points to a decline – the United States is actually growing its college completion rate – it’s just that the growth rate is not as high as other countries’.”

President Obama announced in his new budget an $8 billion “College to Career” program that would give extra funding to community colleges to enroll more students and develop career pathways that lead to good jobs.  As part of that announcement, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Dr. Jill Biden (wife of Vice President Biden) showcased notable education employer partnerships, such as BioOhio and the Health Careers Collaborative Greater Cincinnati.

While phrases such as “Winning the Future” (a tagline used last year for employment and education initiatives) and “College to Career” make excellent bumper stickers, they must be translated into some form of real action to deal with the festering problem of structural unemployment that has haunted this nation since the beginning of the Great Recession. 

Associate Consultants are graduate students at the Fels Institute of
Government. In addition to their work with Fels, Associate Consultants
are completing their Master of Public Administration degrees.

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