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America Still Lags, But Hunger for Education Attainment Grows | Commentary

As the global demand for postsecondary skills continues to rise, America finds itself in a challenging position. Postsecondary attainment is increasing nicely here at home, but our improvements are anemic compared to the pace of attainment around the world. New data tells the story, and it points to a much needed wake-up call for Congress and the White House,state policymakers, higher education officials, employers, civic leaders and more.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries, ranking a disappointing 11th in global postsecondary attainment. Also troubling is the attainment rate among young people — the best predictor of future success — with an astounding 64 percent of young adults (ages 25 to 34) in South Korea having completed education beyond high school. Those rates in Japan and Canada are approaching 60 percent, while young adults in the U.S. hover at just more than 40 percent.

But, there are reasons for optimism. A new report from Lumina Foundation — A Stronger Nation through Higher Education — shows that degree attainment in the U.S. is moving in the right direction. The report reveals that 39.4 percent of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) held a two- or four-year college degree in 2012 — the most recent year for which data are available. That figure is up from 2011, when the rate was 38.7 percent, and the 0.7 percent rise reflects the largest year-over-year increase since 2008.

Momentum is definitely building. It’s there in the numbers. But, our nation must do even more to quicken its pace in the effort to increase college attainment, and the public overwhelmingly supports that notion. Data from a recent Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll shows Americans see vast potential in college-level learning. According to the poll, 90 percent of Americans believe it’s important to increase our rate of college attainment. And 89 percent of Americans report that higher education institutions need to change to better serve the needs of today’s students.

We agree. There’s no question that America’s higher education system is long overdue for a redesign. And we applaud the growing sense of urgency — both inside and outside the higher education community — to increase student success rates, close attainment gaps and ensure high-quality learning. Now, we just need more federal policymakers, and more state and local leaders to embrace the changes that are coming.

The redesign of higher education in America is underway, and for this effort to be successful and sustainable, it must meet three basic requirements including: 1) basing postsecondary credentials, including degrees, on learning; 2) creating smarter pathways for all students, and 3) making higher education accessible and affordable to all who need it. In addition, states must work harder to align investments with state priorities and student needs, and strive to improve the quality of student outcomes in terms of completion, learning and employment.

This redesign is needed because our society and our economy have changed, and it’s imperative for us to recognize and validate learning that’s obtained in settings outside of the classroom, such as the military and the workforce. In tandem, we must embrace innovative, new approaches – such as competency-based education, online education and open courseware. Approaches like these can help move the attainment needle, but significant regulatory and financial barriers must be addressed for them to reach their full potential.

We encourage leaders to be open to innovation and change in this space. Changing — and improving upon — the way we’ve always done higher education in America might be tough at times. But, that’s what Americans are asking of us, and early results of the redesign movement show that new approaches are helping to put us on a positive path toward a higher quality, more outcomes-based system that meets the nation’s ecumenic and social needs.

It’s time for Congress to capitalize on this impetus for improvement. The policy, civic and business leaders that we will call champions tomorrow will be the ones who open today’s doors. By taking ownership of the redesign effort to increase the percentage of adults with meaningful postsecondary credentials across America, their leadership will pay enormous dividends to our economy — and to each individual who is afforded the opportunities that education beyond high school brings in the 21st century.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education.

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