Blog: The Educated Reporter

What’s Behind the Drive for More College Degrees?

Among those who see value in obtaining a college degree,  tension still exists over what role higher education should play nationally. Should state and federal policies break down hurdles to college entry and completion to achieve a more specialized and skilled workforce? Or is the pursuit of education in itself a moral good government should support?

More Americans have degrees than ever before, and the rate at which they’re earning them is on the rise after dragging for several decades. According to federal data, 38.7 percent of individuals ages 25 to 64 possess at least an associate’s degree. This week, The New York Times published a story attributing the recent spurt of new graduates to both new jobs in technology industries and the unintended opportunity the economic downturn gave many Americans to beef up their resumes.

Nevertheless, the uptick in degree attainment is occurring at a rate far slower than is needed to achieve President Obama’s goal of having “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020. The Lumina Foundation, which in recent years has become a major philanthropic player in promoting college completion, has mounted a public campaign to have,  “60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025,” according to their strategic plan. In a report Lumina released this week, the U.S. is off pace to hit that goal. It projects 48 percent of Americans will have at least an associate’s degree by 2025. (Disclosure: Lumina Foundation is one of EWA’s funders.)

[See EWA Story Starters on College Finance and Affordability]

Some states are closer to crossing the degree attainment benchmark than others, as the Lumina report shows. For example, the state most associated with innovation—California—is behind the national trend and is expected to have just 43 percent of its residents with a degree 12 years from now. Massachusetts is slated to reach 57 percent; Alabama 38 percent; and Texas 39 percent.

And if the goal of a more educated United States is to maintain competitiveness globally, demographic trends in this country suggest that even more work will need to be done to prepare the next wave of college-goers. Right now, just one-fifth of Hispanics have a degree compared with 43 percent of whites and 59 percent of Asians. A recent census report shows Hispanics are the largest minority in the country and the youngest, with a median age of 28 while that number for whites is 42. Already, a majority of one-year-olds in the U.S. are non-white, according to much cited Census data released last year.

[See EWA Story Starter on College Access and Completion]

Much of the emphasis on a more educated workforce is based on the idea more degrees would yield greater economic output. That rationale has led to worries among policy makers who’ve noted the U.S. lead over other countries in the number of degree holders it employs is shrinking. In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report that documented this trend.  Among 55-64 year-olds with college degrees, the United States makes up 35.8 percent of the 39 million people in participating OECD countries, which tend to be the wealthiest in the world. Yet of the 81 million OECD degree holders aged 25-34, America’s share drops to a fifth. [See chart]

But what are the advantages of being the global leader in degree attainment? Last year Peter Wood at The Chronicle of Higher Education tallied the current world leaders in that category. Leading all nations is Russia, with 54 percent of its 25-64 year-olds holding a degree. While energy rich, the country’s per capita income is one-quarter that of the United States. And high-tech Germany with its famed worker apprenticeship programs has only 25 percent of its relevant population owning a degree. The United States, for what it’s worth, comes in at 41, according to OECD data cited.

Along those lines, liberal economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wondered in an op-ed for The New York Times this week what responsibility a government has to its denizens when, “we go deep into debt to acquire the skills we’re told we need, only to learn that the economy no longer wants those skills?” He argues the relationship between postsecondary degrees and middle-class stability is less clear-cut today, as disruptive technologies can displace many skilled workers who had already completed college.

Which takes us to the weight analysts place on the type of major students choose. Those who embark on intellectual pursuits not tied to any hard skill may lag behind their STEM- or business-major peers in earnings, but that gap closes over time the longer they remain in the workforce. It’s one reason the “liberal arts” or “manual arts,” as  Ben Wildavsky, a fellow at Education Sector, puts it, is a fraught binary. But what about workers who ground their way through a technology degree only to be pushed into unemployment because of market fluctuations? For example, in April of this year new labor data showed that unemployment rate for electrical engineers was at 6.5 percent, above the overall level for workers with college degrees.

[See EWA Story Starter on STEM]

And many college-goers are working parents or adults who are in it to reap the financial rewards from learning an in-demand skill like health care technician. The liberal arts emphasis may be an academic luxury this cohort of students can ill-afford. It’s one reason Wildavsky, speaking in support of liberal arts degrees, wrote “If slavishly following marketplace imperatives when thinking about educational choices is a mistake, so is ignoring students’ practical desires.”

Related items: 

Why determining the cost of college is so difficult

Federal student loan program is a government money maker, for now

College worth the investment, even for dropouts?