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Embracing Our Demographic Future: The True Test for Higher Education
February 28, 2011 - 9:42pm

The message from governors during the National Governors Association meeting this week is abundantly clear: any additional budget cuts at the federal level represent economic Jenga at the state level. Economic recovery at the state level is precarious. States continuing to bear the brunt of high unemployment and anemic job growth simply cannot endure any further burden or upset wrought by their federal partners.

“We are fragile, so anything Congress does, whether it’s a shutdown or cuts, that will directly impact the states can be of considerable concern to us because we don’t need a hiccup right now in our recovery,” said NGA Chairman and Washington Governor Christine Gregoire.

The governors’ angst reflects a roiling frustration with the economic outlook in the populace, which has profound implications for the college completion agenda. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll of attitudes in the aftermath of the economic downturn found the epicenter of financial stress and frustration is among whites without college degrees. A mere 10 percent say they are satisfied with the nation's current economic situation. Most -- 56 percent -- say the country's best days are past, and more -- 61 percent -- say it will be a long time before the economy begins to recover.

Interestingly, African Americans and Hispanics -- the fastest growing segments of our population -- are more optimistic, despite being more adversely impacted by the economic downturn. Two-thirds of Hispanics believe hard work will pay off for them and expect their financial status to improve in the coming year. More than half of African Americans feel they are better off than their parents were, and 60 percent believe their children will be better off than they are today.

It’s probably not a coincidence that African Americans and Hispanics also report higher aspirations for college -- recognizing college as a gateway to upward economic mobility. According to a Pew Hispanic Center poll, nearly nine in 10 Hispanics say it's "necessary" to get a college education to get ahead in life -- more than any other ethnic or racial group.

To make these aspirations a reality, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) announced an ambitious initiative. The Generation 1st Degree program aims to help at least one person in every Hispanic household earn a college degree so that the degree-holder can then help others in the family achieve the goal as well. The initiative seeks to move the U.S. Latino degree attainment rate from 19 percent to 60 percent by 2025.

Increasing college attainment levels among unemployed, low-income and minority students will exponentially improve economic prospects. HSF estimates lifetime earnings would increase by more than $20 trillion for Hispanics alone if the 60 percent attainment goal is reached.

This is the kind of economic growth that makes the deep federal budget cuts governors fear less disconcerting. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt analyzed an Urban Institute and Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center report and concludes that if the economy grew one half of a percentage point faster than forecast each year over the next two decades -- no easy feat -- the federal government would have to do roughly 40 to 50 percent less deficit-cutting.

That would mean far fewer painful choices, be they tax increases or Medicaid cuts.

This year marks the first year that the oldest members of the baby boomer generation turn 65. Boomers represent nearly 80 million people in America, or about one-fourth of the entire U.S. population. Our nation’s ability to pay social security benefits will be severely limited if young adults -- the majority of which will be the African American and Hispanic populations least well-served by our higher education system today -- are unprepared and unproductive in the work force.

As this blog series has illuminated, more and more governors understand that regaining our position as a global leader in college completion hinges on embracing our demographic future and its college completion imperative.

Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas is seeking more accountability and results:

"I want to tie funding for higher-education institutions more closely to coursework completion and graduation rates, not simply to enrollment. These tax dollars must produce college graduates, not just fill up seats. We can and must double the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025 if we are to stay competitive.”

Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland echoed:

“Innovation. Education. College completion. At the end of the day, it’s all about job creation and job retention. No family can make real progress without a job…. To create more jobs, we must leverage the power of our diversity.”

Nevada’s Governor Brian Sandoval said:

“Universities and community colleges must develop a more strategic focus that connects degree programs and the state’s economic development efforts. I would also ask that at least 15 percent of any increased tuition be reserved to ensure access for those who need financial aid. As we increase autonomy, we will also increase performance indicators so that graduation rates, completion times, and access are measures of success.”

America is demographically blessed -- surrounded by growth and diversity -- on the way to being a majority minority nation by 2050. These demographic riches give us a distinct advantage.

Competitors like Japan, Britain and Germany are either growing slowly or declining, struggling to both maintain a productive work force and paying for baby boomer generations. Rising nations like China remain relatively homogeneous.

Governors are in a position to use their bully pulpits and policy agendas to declare unequivocally that we need 16 million more graduates by 2025 than we currently produce – and that this will require an unprecedented attention to closing longstanding gaps in access and success for low-income, adult, first-generation and students of color. The higher education system that served the nation’s governors is no longer sufficient to serve today’s and tomorrow’s students. Public policies must make productivity, quality, and innovation central objectives, all tracking toward the attainment of statewide and campus completion goals.

As a first-generation college graduate and benefactor of policies advancing postsecondary education for low-income students, it has been a personal and professional pleasure for me to highlight state leaders advancing a college completion agenda in this blog series. As today’s title indicates, we are facing an enormous test of economic resilience and our national commitment to ensuring all Americans have opportunities to achieve their full potential and succeed. With the right mix of public and political will, it’s a test I know we can pass.


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