Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday, Nov. 30:
America's higher education superiority — once taken for granted worldwide — is in danger of slipping away.
Two bipartisan reports, one this week from the National Conference of State Legislatures and another in September from a commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, lament growing gaps in colleges' accessibility, affordability and accountability. They see a crisis brewing, especially for poor and minority students.
But more than individual students would lose out. Without diverse, affordable universities, America will be unable to develop a workforce prepared to meet future needs.
Nationally, for every 100 ninth graders who enter high school, only 18 finish college within six years.
While not everyone needs to go to a four-year college, 90 percent of the future's fastest-growing jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.
America has been shortsighted in neglecting higher education. While the United States once dominated the world in higher education attainment, it now ranks a sorry 12th among major industrialized nations.
Workforce replenishment helped inspire the creation of "public" universities. Lately, however, many states have slashed higher education funding in favor of other pressing budget needs, including K-12 schools. Legislators wrongly reasoned that colleges could rely on tuition.
That funding retreat has contributed to an astronomical 375 percent increase in tuition and fees since the 1980s, putting college out of reach for increasing numbers of families. Over the same time, the federal government cut back on grants and other aid. The alternative — huge debt — is unbearable. This balance sheet must change.
The Spellings report recommends an easy first step: Simplify the stupefying "Free Application for Federal Student Aid," or FAFSA, which makes IRS forms look easy.
The National Conference report calls on state legislatures to incorporate higher education in economic development planning. Legislators should stop funding schools "reactively," in response to job shortages or other crises.
Both reports insist on better accountability. Graduation rates, not enrollment, measure success.
To reduce its dropout rate, higher education must adjust to an evolving demographic. The assumption that most postsecondary education involves 18- to 24-year-olds studying at four-year schools must end. Of today's 14 million undergraduates, more than four in 10 attend community colleges. Nearly one-third are older than 24. Forty percent study part-time.
America needs a flexible, affordable, accountable system to educate its future workforce. Americans shouldn't presume they already have one.
(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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