Is the U.S. Falling Behind in Higher Education?

The United States, once the global leader in the production of a most singular resource—its talent pool of college graduates—is losing ground to emerging nations like South Korea and China.

The recent, “Education at a Glance,” an annual report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), found that about 40 percent of young Americans (ages 34 and under) had attained “tertiary,” or higher education, in 2009. And if that figure sounds familiar, it’s because it hasn’t changed in decades. About 40 percent of older Americans also have college degrees.

That’s not good enough to lead the world anymore. While the U.S. stagnates in its college participation rates, young people in countries like Korea or Russia, where higher education once was rare, are flocking to campuses. These days, a rate of 40 percent means the United States ranks 12th out of the 36 countries ranked by OECD.

“It absolutely is a wake-up call,” said Ann Shadwick, a retired ethnic studies librarian from San Francisco State University, who served as an NEA delegate to the recent Education International (EI) World Congress. “We need to do some creative thinking, as a union, and take the initiative in developing 21st century standards and teaching in our colleges and universities.”

American employers should not need to import qualified, college-educated employees from other countries, Shadwick said. Students here should get what they need to be employable, and their teachers—from K12 onward—should have needed resources and training, especially in technology.

Last July, President Obama called for 5 million more college graduates by 2020, and a recent report from Georgetown University says that this country will need 22 million new workers with college degrees to meet the burgeoning needs of American employers. It likely will fall short by 3 million—“And that, quite simply, is something we cannot afford,” the authors wrote.

Meanwhile, Korea has taken the global lead in college participation rates. In 2009, more than 60 percent of its young people had earned a degree, compared to less than 20 percent of its over-55 population. That country has rapidly increased the capacity of its higher-ed system and made a college degree a cultural touchstone, said EI’s senior advisor in higher-ed issues, David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

These participation rates, viewed in isolation, are noteworthy, but Robinson suggests taking a look at other, even more troubling figures in the OECD report. Why does it cost so much to go to college in the United States? “Tuition fees are out of control,” he said. “The American promise that everybody who qualifies can have a place in college is hollow.”

The United States is, by far, the most expensive place in the world to go to college. And it’s not because the government isn’t contributing — even as funding for education has been cut in recent years, the United States still spends more public money on higher education than any other in the world. But it spends most of those millions on direct financial aid to its students who can’t afford skyrocketing tuition, especially at its private and for-profit institutions, which charge exponentially more than its public colleges.

By contrast, in countries where almost all universities are public and far less expensive to attend, governments need not underwrite the cost of tuition or the new fancy cafeteria and climbing wall. Subsidizing college means paying for educational services. “In Canada, we laugh when we hear that the college football coach earns more than the entire philosophy department,” Robinson said.

But the real driver of growing college costs is not faculty compensation — he points out that faculty salaries actually have been cut across the world. “They key driver of cost is decreased public funding. And, specific to the United States, it’s the growth of the for-profit sector.”

“Republicans are advocating for cuts, cuts, cuts, and no new taxes,” but those cuts hurt students and their chances at degree completion, said Jim Rice, English professor at Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts, and president of NEA’s National Council of Higher Education.

“Research points to two things that will improve completion rates. First, the student needs to identify with at least one person at the institution, and then they need to attach as quickly as possible to a program that leads to graduation,” Rice said. Unfortunately, those kinds of student services and advising programs always are the first on the chopping block, he added.

This week, another report, the latest from the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, shows that the future isn’t likely to look brighter—at least not in this country. Funding cuts to community colleges and public universities are likely to continue; tuition and fees will continue to rise; operating budgets will continue to fall. The one bright spot is President Obama’s $450 billion American Jobs Act, which includes $5 billion to improve facilities at community colleges and also would prevent the layoffs of up to 280,000 teachers.

Census Report: Education Level Main Factor in Determining Income