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The College Board reported in 2010 that the United States ranked twelfth globally in the proportion of young adults holding a college degree. Recognizing the problem, President Obama announced an ambitious goal, declaring that by 2020 the United States should have the highest percentage of college graduates of any country. Higher education has taken on paramount importance with an increasingly technological work environment and globalized economy. A college decree unlocks both employment prospects and personal financial stability.
President Obama addressed the issue in this year’s State of the Union address, declaring, “Higher education can’t be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” His administration calls for increasing Pell Grants, controlling rising tuition costs, and investing in community colleges. Although these steps ultimately will likely accomplish little in addressing core issues, they are necessary federal actions that should help alleviate existing problems.
Graduation Failures
After getting students to college, another core problem remains. Professor Philip Altbach of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College told the HPR, “We do a pretty good job on access, but a bad job on completion. It should not take five or six years to get a four-year degree.” Even worse, the student may not actually graduate: according to the 2009 U.S. Census report, 31 percent of students who attend college do not earn a degree. Altbach contends, “The biggest problem is secondary education. It needs more funding, attention, and accountability.” Poor secondary education has forced many students to arrive at college unprepared, leading them to either drop out or take extra time to finish.
Beyond that, Dr. Edward Valeau, former president of Hartnell Community College, tells the HPR, “Economics plays an enormous role in the dropout rate. A lot of times, students must balance their family and work life in addition to school.” These personal financial issues particularly affect those students who would often benefit the most from a college degree, creating a cruel paradox. While these students are seeking to improve themselves financially, they are forced out because they cannot sustain themselves and their families without working more often. This barrier limits the number of U.S. adults holding degrees.
Swelling Tuition
Tuition has increased steadily over the past decade in nearly all post-secondary institutions across the country. For many young adults, the cost makes attending college simply impractical or even impossible. Harvard economics Professor Claudia Goldin notes, “More students are having to work in college than ever before in order to offset the high cost of their tuition. Working while in college is a real drain on the amount of time you can devote to studies.”
The recession is partly to blame, given that state funding for public universities has been cut significantly. President Obama has been putting pressure on states to stop these cuts, but the problem is beyond his control. However, Carl Rist, vice president for Assets and Opportunity Programs at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, tells the HPR, “Part of the agenda must be a more universal saving policy.” He argues that households must increase savings to afford college, which itself is an investment.
Although many factors contributing to rising tuition are uncontrollable, one part of President Obama’s plan aims to alleviate costs. Under the 2010 Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, Pell Grant funding has doubled. This funding increased the number of grants awarded annually, providing more funding for poor Americans.
Increased accessibility to college is invaluable, and Valeau details, “As a former president of a community college, I can tell you that once someone spends at least one semester in college, they will likely finish or come back. They’ve gotten a taste of the college environment, and they will be hungry for more.” Beyond Pell Grants though, the President’s plan outlines an additional solution: investment in community colleges.
Why Community Colleges?
With admissions to selective U.S. institutions becoming more competitive every year, it is clear that top U.S. universities are still among the best in the world. “We do a great job in the upper echelon of higher education in comparative global terms,” according to Altbach, but millions remain who would benefit from higher education. Community colleges, meanwhile, are easily accessible to students throughout the country due to their convenient locations and relatively lenient admissions process. Rist points out, “Community colleges are sought after by families with a broad range of incomes, and they can be a door to either a four-year degree or an employment opportunity.”
The community college investment component of President Obama’s plan is perhaps the most lucrative. Altbach describes community colleges as, “a key part of American higher education that has been underfunded for many years,” and under the Reconciliation Act, more than $2 billion has already been invested. Valeau explains, “With additional funding, community colleges can add additional faculty and make them more accountable, make college more affordable, and enhance pathways that lead directly to employment or a four-year degree.” The benefits of investment in community colleges have real effects, making students’ experiences more worthwhile and affordable.
Looming Issues
President Obama’s higher education plan is idealistic, but it will provide short-term relief. States meanwhile must confront the issue of education funding, and with the shortfalls of No Child Left Behind, there will likely be little federal involvement in education policy for the foreseeable future. States must pick up the slack, because too much depends on the next generation’s education.

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