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Tom Donohue: Are U.S. Public Colleges Making the Grade?

How we confront our education challenges today will determine how we compete tomorrow

U.S. colleges and universities are the bright spot in the American education system. Our research institutions are among the best in the world, and international scholars and students flock to our shores for post-secondary education. The U.S. population ranks near the top globally for college-educated adults.

But according to Leaders and Laggards, a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis of public colleges and universities in all 50 states, our higher education system isn’t achieving its full potential. For too long, we’ve measured the strength of our public post-secondary schools by what we put into them — college acceptance rates and education spending. That, however, tells us nothing of the system’s productivity.

When you measure the number of students who graduate, and how they translate their degrees into jobs and wages, you get a clearer view of the challenges we face.

Tuition is rising three times faster than inflation. Meanwhile, graduation rates are falling. The study shows that, nationwide, barely 50 percent of students in four-year public colleges finish their degrees. In a tough economy, many Americans are questioning the market value of these degrees. Some are concluding that a college education isn’t worth the price of attendance.

But by 2018, two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require some post-secondary education. And as a result of the lagging productivity in higher education, labor economists project that the United States won’t have the educated workforce to keep up with demand.

This is an economic disaster waiting to happen — if we let it. The good news is we don’t have to.

While the study reveals some failings in our public higher education system, it also highlights states that are emerging as national leaders. Florida and Washington, for example, are graduating more competitive students in greater numbers. Other states that continue to struggle with student success are turning to innovative reforms — evidence that policymakers are eager to address the challenge.

No one state or set of reforms is necessarily going to be a model for success. Top-down reform edicts aren’t likely to work. Yet we do know that an emphasis on the right things — degree completion, real measures of quality, efficiency, transparency and innovation — can drive productivity. And productivity will translate into a stronger workforce, higher wages and more robust economic growth.

The global race for talent and thought leadership in a knowledge economy is heating up. How we confront our education challenges today will determine how we compete tomorrow.

Click here to read the full Leaders and Laggards report.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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