In his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school.
It's an ambitious goal — some might say impossible. Currently, only two of every five American adults have a two- or four-year college degree. Millions of Americans struggle even to complete high school, with one in four dropping out. And even a high school degree is no guarantee a student is ready for college.
Particularly alarming are the college rates for low-income and minority students. One recent study reported more than 90 percent of low-income teens said they planned to go to college — but only half actually enroll.
Those who do enroll are substantially less likely than others to finish their degree. If they borrowed money for college and don't graduate, they may be worse off than if they hadn't even started college.
The Associated Press asked six experts — from the worlds of policy, philanthropy and some who work directly with struggling students — to answer the same two questions.
Is the president's goal realistic? And what would it take to attain it? Here are their responses.
Stepping up to the challenge
Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for children, particularly poor and minority children:
Absolutely! Just as those GIs stepped up to the challenges of college, today's young people will, too. But we have work to do.
First, we must get serious about high schools. Instead of preparing some for college and others for the jailhouse, we need to help high schools prepare every student for college.
Second, we have to dramatically improve results for low-income and minority students, now more than half of our youth. Increasing their success is the only way to ensure our national success.
Finally, colleges need to accept some responsibility for improving graduation rates. (See collegeresults.org for information on any college.) That includes holding costs down, and focusing not just on getting students in the door but out with degrees. Yes, students need to work harder. But what colleges do matters a lot.
College not for everyone
Richard Vedder, Ohio University professor and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education assembled by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:
Not everyone can or should go to college. Given the dubious quality of our secondary schools as well as limited cognitive skills and motivation, many students are incapable of college-level work. Fulfillment of President Obama's goal would lead to many students failing, resources being squandered and the quality of postsecondary education being diluted.
I think it is sheer fantasy to believe we will lead the world in the percent of young adults with college degrees by 2020. More generally, the president's approach is the equivalent of dropping dollars out of airplanes over student homes and college campuses. That will not change colleges' behavior to make them less arrogant and elite — and more affordable, efficient and accountable.
Show young people college is possible
Nicole Hurd, executive director of the National College Advising Corps, which places recent college graduates in low-income schools to work as college guidance counselors:
All students are capable of continuing their education beyond high school. And while there are no easy answers, one way to open the door wider is to demonstrate to our young people that college is possible.
No one can do this better than recent college graduates. There is something powerful about a 23-year-old telling a high school student that "I went to college and if I can do it, you can, too." Or "My family was worried about the cost of college, but the aid is out there. Let's sit down and fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)." Or "If you want to go to college and get a good job, you need to take hard classes and do your best."
Many of the barriers to higher education, whether financial, social, or cultural, can be overcome through this kind of mentoring and advising. In calling high-school students to college, President Obama is calling college students to service. Just imagine if 500 recent graduates served in our public high schools. Such a group could mentor 150,000 low-income and first-generation students — and could help thousands enroll in college who might not otherwise have found their way. While this kind of service isn't the only solution, it could go a long way.
Making America competitive again
Eduardo J. Marti, president of Queensborough Community College in New York City:
President Obama's call for higher education for all Americans is doable.
The United States began building higher education capacity in 1947, when the Truman Commission established the concept of universal access to higher education and created open admissions community colleges. The 1965 Higher Education Act established financial aid. These two actions resulted in a post-secondary education system that guarantees access to all. No other country has this infrastructure.
All Americans, young or old, can use community colleges to upgrade their skills or obtain a degree. This existing system can be used to retrain displaced workers for better jobs and it can be used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. We must make America competitive again.
We must also hold our community colleges accountable by developing strenuous metrics of excellence. The national Achieving the Dream Project is studying innovative approaches in 82 colleges, and we can use those results to measure our success. The shattered dreams and wasted fiscal resources that result from low graduation rates must be stopped.
Higher education vital to America’s future
Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and president of the College Board, which works to connect students to college and runs the SAT and AP exam programs:
Not only is the president's goal realistic, achieving it is also vital to the future economic and social well-being of our society. Among the most important steps to attain it are:
- An earlier start to schooling, especially for youngsters from low-income families. Greater access to and participation in preschool programs, such as Head Start, would help put many, many more young people on the path to college.
- Access to more rigorous courses in middle and high school, taught by teachers with strong training and access to sustained professional development.
- Better strategies for making college affordable, such as early college savings plans for all students, including plans that are subsidized by the government for low-income families.
- Adult education programs that make it easier to return to college, through online courses or community colleges.
Preparing students for college success
Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, which works to expand access to higher education:
President Obama's goal is challenging, but it's certainly realistic. At Lumina Foundation, our own goal is to increase Americans' attainment of high-quality degrees from its current 39 percent rate to 60 percent by 2025.
We know that our goal is ambitious. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken — by educators, policy makers and the public — to help realize BOTH goals.
First, we must ensure that students truly prepare themselves for college success: academically, financially and socially. Second, higher education institutions must direct their full energies toward the success (not just the enrollment) of students — especially low-income and minority students. Finally, we must encourage efforts that improve efficiency and productivity on the nation's campuses, so more students are properly served.