Report: U.S. Lags in Race to Educate Its Young Population; Nation's Affordable College Opportunities Deteriorating

  • September 07, 2006

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WASHINGTON - Long the world leader in higher education, the United States has fallen behind other nations in the race to educate its young adults and workers, says a new report. Moreover, college affordability continues to deteriorate for most American students and their families. The study, Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education, was released by the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

“The report card's findings challenge the notion that the American higher education system is still the ‘best in the world,' ” said Governor James B. Hunt Jr., chair of the National Center's board of directors and former governor of North Carolina. “In such key areas as college access and completion, the U.S. has made little or no progress, while other countries have made substantial gains. Our country must not remain satisfied with past achievements or reputation; we can and must mobilize our nation, our states, and our colleges for success in this global competition.”

Measuring Up 2006 is the fourth in a series of biennial report cards issued by the National Center, based in San Jose, California. Like the earlier reports, this one measures the performance of the nation and of each state in providing education and training beyond high school. This report card is the first in the series to compare national and state higher education performance with other nations.

The Measuring Up 2006 findings show that younger Americans are falling behind young people of other nations in college enrollment and completion rates. While the United States is still a world leader in the proportion of Americans ages 35 to 64 with a college degree, it ranks seventh on this measure for 25- to 34-year-olds.

Several nations have overtaken the U.S. in college access and others are close behind. In rates of college completion, the U.S. ranks in the bottom half in the most recent international comparisons.

“For most American families, college affordability has continued to deteriorate,” Hunt added. “The share of family income required to pay for a year of college has continued to escalate for all but the wealthiest families. And financial aid for qualified students who can't afford college has not kept pace with tuition increases.”

Looking at trends since the early 1990s in these performance areas, the report finds:

  • The proportion of family income needed to pay net college costs (after accounting for all student financial aid) at public four-year colleges has grown from 28% to 42% in Ohio; from 24% to 37% in New Jersey; from 18% to 30% in Iowa; from 25% to 36% in Oregon; and from 20% to 31% in Washington.
  • State support of need-based financial aid improved significantly in Washington, California, and Maryland.
  • Gaps in college participation between high- and low-income students persist. In Virginia, 58% of high-income and 14% of low-income young adults (18- to 24-year-olds) are enrolled in college; in Connecticut, the gap is 58% to 16%; in Ohio, 61% to 20%; in New Jersey, 51% to 20%; and in Illinois, 52% to 23%.
  • There have been small gains in certificate and degree completion—the proportion of enrolled students earning certificates and associate's and bachelor's degrees. Most of the improvements have been in certificate completion (usually for occupational programs) rather than degree completion. Even in the best-performing states, only 65% of community college students return for their second year and only 67% of students in four-year institutions complete degrees within six years of enrolling. The United States compares very poorly with other countries in this area, according to the international comparisons in Measuring Up 2006.
  • The likelihood of a 9th grader enrolling in college four years later is less than 40%; and that likelihood has decreased from 44% to 32% in Hawaii; from 46% to 35% in Vermont; and from 45% to 37% in New York.
  • Gaps between ethnic groups in college enrollment rates persist. For example, enrollment rate for white 18-to-24 year-olds in Colorado are 40% and 17% for non-whites; in New Jersey, 47% for whites and 27% for non-whites; in Pennsylvania, 39% for whites and 21% for non-whites.

“The knowledge-based global economy has stimulated an intense international competition for college-educated and trained workers. Other nations have approached the need for higher rates of college participation and completion with a real sense of urgency we haven't yet seen in the U.S.,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center. “As the baby boom generation, the best educated Americans in history, approach retirement age, our country could experience a drop-off in college trained workers just as the rest of the world is gearing up to surpass us in higher education.”

In addition to the national report card, detailed individual report cards are available for each of the 50 states. Upon release of Measuring Up 2006, the national and state report cards will be posted on the National Center's Web site: www.highereducation.org. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. It is not affiliated with any government agency, political party, or college or university. The National Center conducts policy research and fosters public awareness of pressing public policy issues affecting education and training beyond high school. The purpose of the National Center's studies and reports, including Measuring Up 2006, is to stimulate public policies that will improve the effectiveness and accessibility of higher education.

The National Center has been supported since 1998 by core grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies, The Ford Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. These grants supported the initiation of its programs and enabled the National Center to launch the report card project. The Measuring Up reports have been supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. A grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported an external, independent review of the report data and methodology.

The Measuring Up national report cards on higher education were made possible by these foundations. The statements and views expressed in these reports, however, do not necessarily reflect those of the funders, and are the responsibility of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

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