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Why International Comparisons Matter

Last week I participated in the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, an event that featured more than 1,000 participants from 150+ nations--a veritable who’s who of higher education leaders from across the globe. The event gave me an opportunity to reflect, in a concrete way, on what it means to be the “best in the world” in college degree attainment.

July 19, 2009

Last week I participated in the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, an event that featured more than 1,000 participants from 150+ nations--a veritable who’s who of higher education leaders from across the globe. The event gave me an opportunity to reflect, in a concrete way, on what it means to be the “best in the world” in college degree attainment.

Getting to this goal -- which Lumina Foundation for Education has articulated as increasing the nation’s level of high-quality degrees and credentials to 60% by 2025 -- is more than simply an organizing principle. As President Obama has said, college success is not just a pathway to opportunity, it’s a prerequisite. If followed, the path leads to jobs, the jobs lead to prosperity, and prosperity leads to economic and social stability for individual Americans and for the country at large. The Administration’s new major initiative on community colleges reinforces the view that this President will try to exhibit leadership that can make a palpable difference in boosting student success rates.

The American participants at the World Conference included some of the nation’s leading higher education voices, including Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron, University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken, ACE President Molly Broad, CHEA President Judith Eaton, and a distinguished government delegation headed by new Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter. These leaders, and the many other participants, seem to be increasingly clear in their understanding that the knowledge economy requires Americans to develop the skills that are demanded in a globally competitive environment. As a result, increasing higher education attainment is critical to the U.S. economy.

The implications of this shift toward a more highly skilled workforce cannot be overstated. For generations, the American economy created large numbers of middle class jobs that did not require high levels of skill or knowledge. Because of global competition, these jobs are rapidly disappearing. It is not that low-skill jobs do not exist in the U.S.; it is that the Americans who hold them are not likely to enter or remain in the middle class. They are not likely to have access to quality health care, save for retirement or assure their children access to higher education.

A clear message that was repeated throughout much of the discussion at the World Conference was that many nations now understand that a society made up of large number of individuals with meaningful, high-quality degrees and credentials enables those nations to be economically, socially, and culturally successful. This is one reason why other parts of the world are working to raise attainment—and why we need to pay attention to what they’re doing.

The American public has rapidly come to this same conclusion. Americans have always valued higher education and been aware that it delivers significant economic and social benefits. But they never really believed it was a necessity – until now. Fifty-five percent of Americans now believe that obtaining a college degree is the only way to succeed. As recently as 2000, only 30 percent of Americans believed that. Unfortunately, many in the education and policy worlds fail to understand what their constituencies see very clearly. Too often we continue to hear debates about who is or isn’t “college material.”

So why should we care about the educational attainment of other nations? One reason is that there is clear evidence that rising attainment rates in other countries reflect genuine economic demand for a better-educated workforce. In 29 of the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the gap in earnings between people who have completed some form of higher education and those who have not is widening, even though the proportion of college graduates in the workforce is increasing. If the economy were not demanding higher levels of skills and knowledge, this earnings gap would narrow as the supply of graduates increased; it’s simple supply and demand.

The widening earnings gap is evident in the U.S. as well. Since 1975, average annual earnings of high school dropouts and high school graduates fell in real terms (by 15 percent and 1 percent respectively), while those of college graduates rose by 19 percent. In other words, the economic benefits – both for individuals and the society – of completing higher education are growing.

It’s not that the U.S. needs to increase higher education attainment simply because of our ranking in international comparisons. However, it is vitally important that we be clear about what we know with certainty about higher education attainment. Higher education attainment in the U.S. – the percent of the American population with a postsecondary credential or degree – has remained flat for 40 years, in spite of the dramatic economic and social changes during that period. Meantime, higher education attainment in the rest of the world has increased, in some cases at dramatic rates. I believe this reflects a fundamental change in the role higher education plays in advanced economies – a change that the U.S. ignores at its peril.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president of the Lumina Foundation for Education


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