As the U.S. economy slowly rebounds and new jobs are added each month, a troubling trend has emerged that has policymakers, economists and employers worried. Skilled workers are increasingly in short supply, and a new report from Lumina Foundation explains that the main culprit is that the nation’s postsecondary attainment rates are woefully insufficient.
According to the report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, 38.3 percent of working-age Americans held a two- or four-year college degree in 2010. That figure is up slightly from 2008 when the rate was 37.9 percent, but the problem is the pace. As we creep along, college completion rates are soaring in places like South Korea where a stunning 63 percent of young adults now hold a postsecondary degree.
At our current pace, less than 47 percent of Americans will have at least an associate degree by 2025. Labor experts say that means we will be more than 23 million degree holders below the total needed to meet future workforce demands.
The nation’s low rate of college attainment is a double-edged sword: it’s hampering economic recovery in the near-term, and it poses a huge threat to our nation’s long-term economic health. Why? Because without college-level learning, workers simply don’t have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly complex global economy.
Take the case of Indiana as an example. In 1980 two-thirds (67%) of the jobs in the state were filled by people who had a high school degree or less. By 1990, that had declined to 51%. Today, less than 40% of Indiana jobs are filled by people who have only a high school credential or below.
So demand for college credentials is increasing, rapidly, and can drive economic recovery. But that demand is being thwarted by low attainment rates. One reason is that the cost of a degree is now prohibitive for too many Americans. College tuition has outpaced inflation for nearly three decades, an unsustainable trend.
In this economic environment, colleges and universities must become true innovators, streamlining costs and finding innovative ways to increase productivity. This productivity enhancement will result in a substantial increase in high-quality degrees and certificates, at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving opportunities for the nation’s fast-growing underserved populations. Several states are wisely employing performance-based funding to reduce the cost of delivery, shorten the time to earn a degree or credential, and increase attainment rates.
A key element in this education recovery is to focus on quality: what students actually learn and what they can do with the skills and knowledge they gain. Heeding this call, many states have now established clear goals for college completion. Several cities, business groups and higher education institutions have done the same.
Higher education institutions also must become more responsive, especially to underemployed adults who require new skills and training. In fact, if just 10 percent of the more than 36 million adults who previously have gone to college but have no degree actually completed their studies, more than 3.6 million degree holders would be added to our nation’s workforce. Combined with a renewed push on success for first-generation students, minorities, returning veterans and others, we could see a huge boost in attainment levels.
With the national unemployment rate still hovering above 8%, it might seem counterintuitive to suggest that we don’t have enough skilled workers. But, a quick scan of job classifieds in the top 50 metropolitan markets shows that there are currently 40,000 open positions in the engineering, medical and technology related fields alone. Many of these positions have been open for months, but far too few Americans are prepared to fill them.
If we could better match available jobs to people with the right skills, we could increase employment at a faster pace across America. And that is what’s needed to accelerate the rebound of the economy and provide a foundation for sustained job growth into the future.
Our nation needs an education recovery to help propel the nascent economic recovery, because improved education attainment is the best route to economic prosperity for both individuals and the nation.