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America has fallen behind in the global education race

We’re getting better but we’re still a long way from great when it comes to post-high school learning in the United States.

I recently spoke on a video link for World Access to Higher Education Day at a conference called, "Beyond Borders: Widening Access to International Higher Education Through International Cooperation."

Americans like to pride ourselves for world-class achievements in science, technology and other fields, but when it comes to higher education we’re embarrassingly behind.

Comparative data on the percentage of people expected to graduate from college is published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks attainment in more than two dozen of the world’s wealthiest countries. OECD, which has its roots in the Marshall Plan after World War II, promotes sustainable economic growth and prosperity, and tracks education around the world.

A generation ago, the United States ranked first in the world in higher education attainment. But since then, our country has failed to improve at the same pace as some other countries, in effect putting us at a grave competitive disadvantage.

The implications of this should concern all of us:

  • Failing to produce an educated workforce means a long-term economic decline as we compete with other countries in an increasingly interconnected world.
  • People without education and training face a nearly impossible climb toward the middle class, not to mention missed opportunities for personal growth and civic participation.
  • African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians see fewer educational opportunities, so they’re unjustly cut off from the American dream. That hurts all of us, because we can’t have a vibrant, globally competitive workforce without them.

It took us 20 years to fall this far behind, and I think we got here for a reason: We grew complacent, and far too many of us saw higher education as a personal rather than societal benefit. We saw it as important, perhaps life-changing, but not actually necessary to reach the good life of the middle class.

That may have been true once, but not any longer. In the rapidly changing technology of the workplace, good-paying jobs today require degrees, certificates or industry certifications. Since the Great Recession ended in 2010, the U.S. economy has added 11.6 million jobs, and 11.5 million of those require education beyond high school.

It’s a remarkable statistic, and one that I would guess is true elsewhere. Every country needs an educated workforce, and at least a dozen others are getting there faster than we are.

Fixing this won’t be easy, but Lumina Foundation is working with others across the country to help increase attainment from where it is now, at about 47 percent, to 60 percent. We’re changing the conversation in several ways: Instead of just talking about education, for example, we want to emphasize learning—not just a semantical difference, but a focus that causes us to ask important questions about the skills and knowledge that people need, to meet the demands for talent in our nation and in a global society.

We must work on assuring that this learning—wherever and however it is obtained—is recognized by transparent credentials that communicate skills and knowledge to employers, education providers, and the individuals who hold the credentials.

As an independent, private foundation focused solely on making these opportunities available to everybody, we’ve placed equity—racial justice and fairness—at the center of our work. The equity imperative, as we call it, insists that real opportunity must exist for all, so we must seek to understand and close gaps in attainment wherever we find them.

It’s not just that we can’t increase attainment enough without closing those gaps, although that is certainly true. It’s that gaps in attainment based on income, geography, age, and especially race, must be closed because the consequences of failing to find success in postsecondary education are now so severe.

This is a struggle, in many ways: We’re struggling against complacency, against the comfort of old ways, and against the fear of change that some cannot shake.

There is progress, to be sure. The advances we’re making are encouraging, but we need to move faster. We need a sense of urgency that matches what learning means for the millions of Americans who deserve a chance to contribute to the best of their potential.

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Tracy Chen
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