Office of The President

August 2012 Archives

In Times of Economic Uncertainty, College is More Important Than Ever

At the last minute, just before a July 1, 2012, deadline when the interest rate for new federal student loans was scheduled to double, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that maintains current loan rates. For the next year at least, college students are assured that federal subsidized loan interest rates will stay at 3.4 percent.

With many college graduates already struggling with student loan debt at a time when the unemployment rate is hovering above eight percent, the possibility that college would become even more expensive was cause for consternation among students and their parents. Even without the threat of higher college loan interest rates, in today's economy, many students are eying the cost of higher education and asking themselves: Is college worth it?

The short answer is "Yes." College is definitely worth it, and it will become increasingly more important in the next few decades.

Just a generation or two ago, a person could establish himself in a career and climb the corporate ladder without a college degree. Today, however, things are very different. We have moved away from our grandparents' high school-based economy, where a high school diploma was a fair promise of economic opportunity. In the global economy of the 21st century, we are competing not just with our fellow Americans for jobs, but also with job-seekers from all over the world. As recently as the 1980s, the United States led the world in the number of young adults with a college degree. Today our country ranks 12th among industrialized nations in college-completion rates. More worrisome is the fact that -- given demographic and educational trends -- the United States is on track to fall to last place among industrialized nations by 2025. This growing gap between the United States and other countries threatens to weaken American economic competitiveness.

A study conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that the economy will create nearly 47 million jobs by 2018, including 14 million new jobs and 33 million jobs replacing workers who leave or retire. Approximately 33 percent of those jobs will require a bachelor's degree.  Another 30 percent will necessitate an associate degree or at least some college training. Only about a third of those jobs will be available to people with a high school diploma or less. Those jobs are expected to be confined to three low-wage job categories: food and personal services, sales and office support, and manufacturing and construction.

The economic gaps between those with a college degree and those with just a high school diploma are getting larger as well. When it comes to employment figures, the numbers show that education pays: Unemployment rates decline as workers become more educated. In 2011, the unemployment rate for those with high school diplomas was 9.4 percent; for those with a college degree, the rate was just 4.9 percent. Pew Research Center surveys also show that 86 percent of college graduates say that higher education has been a good investment for them personally. According to Forbes, a typical college graduate earns about $55,000 annually, whereas high school graduates earn, on average, $23,000 per year. The stark reality of the gap between those with a college degree and those without: It is estimated that a college graduate earns an additional $1 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school graduate.  College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs that offer better benefits and working conditions.

In addition, job patterns -- the ways in which we work -- have changed dramatically over the past generation. Instead of starting a job in one industry and slowly advancing over an entire career with that same company or organization, most people now work in specific occupations (such as a financial analyst or an engineer) and switch jobs frequently, often from one industry to another. On average, American workers change jobs 10 times in their lifetimes. Education gives you choices, and it gives you flexibility to move from one sector to the next.

In a time of economic uncertainty, and with tuition costs climbing, it's tempting to try to convince ourselves that college isn't a necessary expense. However, the United States faces great challenges in the decades ahead, and I know of no challenge that is served by having less educated people work on it.


Elsa Núñez
President
Eastern Connecticut State University

The Achievement Gap

If I had to select one thing that I would change about higher education today, it would be the "Achievement Gap," the gap in academic progress that exists in the United States between middle class, largely suburban white students, and students from low-income families, largely urban students of color.  By closing this gap, we will greatly increase the numbers of students who have access to higher education.

 

Schools through the United States assess academic achievement at grades four, nine, and twelve as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and minority students, especially those from low-income, urban families, fall below national averages in reading, writing, science and math at all three grade levels.  As a result, the college attendance and graduation rates of minority and low-income students also continue to lag national averages. We cannot hope to improve college completion rates if we don't address this achievement gap.

 

Even in preschool, we start to see various factors converging to impact educational performance. For Latino children, the language barrier is especially troublesome. Latino preschoolers who enter first grade without English proficiency are at least one grade level behind the day they walk into school.

 

The gap only gets wider as students move on. By grade four, low-income, urban, and minority students are performing 20-40 points below their white counterparts in writing, reading, math, and science, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. What is most frustrating is that NAEP test scores among many minority students actually get worse the longer the kids are in school. For instance, the gap between white, presumably more affluent students in Connecticut and their Latino and African American counterparts grows 4-6 points in reading, math and writing tests between the 4th and 9th grades. Latinos and African American students end up with significantly higher high school dropout rates, lower college attendance and graduation rates, and higher poverty rates than whites.

 

So what can we do about it?  States need to enact multiple initiatives simultaneously--policies that will help to create "a coherent and comprehensive policy framework."  Common strategies include health care reform, nutrition, pre-school literacy, parental involvement in education, adult literacy, after-school programs, workforce training, and other family support systems. Additional initiatives should include improving the college readiness of high school graduates; better data collection; stronger partnerships between K-12 school districts, community colleges, and universities, and strategies at our colleges and universities to improve retention and graduation rates. 

 

Even as we look at statewide strategies for impacting the achievement gap, the reality is that all change occurs locally. Here are some ideas that we can incorporate into our local schools: 

·         Early childhood education and preschool literacy must be components of local achievement gap efforts.  Children of low-income families in preschool are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to go to college.  Nutrition, socialization, and intellectual stimulation are all cited as being important for all young children.  For Latino children, preschool English literacy instruction is fundamental.  Effective literacy education must also include literacy programming for parents and other family members.

·         We need to forge stronger ties between community colleges and local universities.  In Connecticut, we have a formal compact between the 12 community colleges and all four state universities so that entering freshmen can co-enroll and ensure that their full associate degree transfers without incident when they enter a state university as juniors. 

·         We need to build stronger commitments from local educational and community leaders. In El Paso, Texas, where 80 percent of the students are Latino, the local school district, the local community college, and the University of Texas-El Paso have come together to address the educational achievement issue.  Several nonprofit agencies have joined in the effort. There is a role for everyone -- a community collaborative of businesspeople, parents, and other adults provide additional support to teachers in the school system.

 

Closing the achievement gap is a social challenge that will not be solved until all of us -- not just educators, government officials, and the families that are impacted -- meet the challenge head on.  Whether we look at it as a moral imperative to give those less fortunate than us a better chance of living the American dream, or we see this in stark economic terms (experts suggest that closing the achievement gap between America's haves and have-nots could add as much as 2-4 percent to our Gross Domestic Product), improving academic performance among at-risk groups is good public policy for those experiencing it as well as society at large. Closing the Achievement Gap is not solely an educational reform issue -- it's everyone's business.

 

An Infographic by Open Colleges

 

Elsa Núñez

President

Eastern Connecticut State University

 

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