“I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
– President Obama, 2009 address to a joint session of congress.
Increased scrutiny of college degree attainment is related to concern over the nation’s ability to remain competitive in an economy that is becoming more globally inclusive and complex. Many believe the nation’s standing and competitiveness is be- ing jeopardized as numerous countries begin and continue to surpass the United States in degree attainment. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2010), the United States ranks 12th out of 36 developed countries in the number of 25- to 34-year-old adults with some type of college degree (link). OECD data indicate that an increasing number of countries will catch or surpass the United States in tertiary degree attainment in coming years due to the lack of progress in educational attainment among the younger segment of adult Americans compared to their same- age peers in other countries.
In a new brief, Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal: The Threat of Income-Based Inequality in Education, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education argues that most federal education policy discussions neglect to develop targeted interventions for students from low-income and working-class families. Using analysis from acclaimed higher education researcher Tom Mortenson, the report highlights that bachelor’s degree attainment for students from the wealthiest half of American families is higher than the bachelor’s degree attainment rates for all countries included in the OECD international comparison analysis. On the other hand, American students from families in the bottom half of the income distribution rank nearly last among other OECD countries in bachelor’s degree attainment.
1. Set and track goals to reduce income-based disparities on key educational outcomes related to the 2020 goal.
2. Funnel federal dollars, such as Title I funds, to the low-income, underperforming students who need it most. Invest in ways that offset disparities in per student expenditures created by state and local policies that give an advantage to students in wealthy school districts and neighborhoods.
3. Protect the Pell Grant against cuts that will reduce college access for low-income students.
4. Increase supplemental college access and support services for low-income students throughout the educational pipeline. Tap into the many benefits of supplemental academic support and outreach services such as TRIO and GEAR UP that are needed to help students from low-income families with the support they need to enroll and excel in college.
The recommendations they offer will not singlehandedly achieve the Administration’s goal, but they provide reasonable solutions that can help the nation reduce income-based inequalities in educational attainment and make progress toward the goal pos- sible by the year 2020.