Looking Toward 2025

In a new report, College Board lays out an ambitious agenda to improve college completion rates over the next 15 years.

December 11, 2008

WASHINGTON -- In an ambitious and challenging proposal, a group of higher education leaders introduced a plan here Wednesday that they say will halt the deterioration of educational attainment in the U.S. and hold states and institutions accountable for their progress toward that goal.

The College Board’s report, “Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future,” is billed as a call to action for every sector of education -- from pre-kindergarten to college. Through state investments in the educational pipeline, as well as cost-cutting measures to maintain affordability, the board’s report suggests that 55 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 could hold an associate or bachelor's degree by 2025. Meeting that goal would require moving the needle on college completion rates by 15 percentage points, or 1 point every year starting in 2010.

William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and chairman of the board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, said the plan was intended to keep the U.S. competitive in an increasingly educated world.

“Other nations have passed us by, and many more have the capacity to pass us by in the next several years,” Kirwan said.

With a 40 percent postsecondary attainment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds, the U.S. ranks 11th among developed nations, trailing Canada, Japan and Belgium, among others.

Kirwan noted that the report’s promise of benchmarks, which would publicly track progress through annual reports, was a distinguishing feature of the plan. The board promises to compile reports that will gauge progress in a number of areas of higher education, including student aid figures, graduation rates and recruitment numbers for low-income and first-generation students.

“It’s my observation that states don’t like to see themselves at the bottom of lists,” said Kirwan, who touted the benchmarks as key motivators for progress.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said the accountability measures proposed in the report might save it from the fate of other similar reports that have had little impact.

“We’ve seen a lot of reports come and go,” Van Hollen said.

The College Board Will Issue Annual Reports
on Progress Toward a Series of Benchmarks

Recommendation Indicator
Increase number of adults who earn a college degree to 55% by 2025. Percentage of adults (25 to 34 years old) with two or four-year degree.
Provide voluntary access to preschool education to all children from low-income families. National percentage of children ages 3 to 4 from low-income families enrolled in school in a given year, and number of states that have legislated (and funded) preschool programs for low-income families.
Implement proven dropout prevention programs. Decrease in dropout rates, as defined by U.S. Department of Education. Increase in high school graduation rates.
Establish college-preparatory curriculum aligned with world class standards. Number of states that require a college-prep curriculum for all students in order to graduate from high school. Percentage of annual increase in Advanced Placement [AP] participation and success.
Clarify financial aid processes; increase grant aid in step with inflation; minimize student debt; make aid more predictable; provide incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income and first-generation students. Summary of changes made to federal student aid that affect simplicity and predictability. Total grant aid per student. New policies that provide incentives to institutions to enroll and graduate low-income students.
Keep college affordable. College costs rise at rate that is equal to or below the inflation rate.
Improve college retention. Increase in six-year graduation rates.

Economic Climate Poses Challenges

The College Board began compiling the report about two years ago, and there was acknowledgment at Wednesday’s presentation on Capitol Hill that the U.S. economy is in far different shape than it was when the commission set out on its work. At a time when many states are dramatically reducing budgets, the report calls for big-ticket items like “universally” available preschool for children from low-income families, new dropout prevention programs and increases in need-based financial aid -- coupled with lowering costs for students.

“We recognize that not all of the recommendations can be immediately implemented,” Kirwan said.

The report does not explicitly explore the costs of its proposed reforms, but commission members noted that their proposals would be expensive -- and potentially encounter political opposition as a result. The commission, however, rejected any comparisons to other groups -- like auto manufacturers -- that are now soliciting the government for money.

“Education is not an interest group,” said James Wright, president of Dartmouth College and a member of the commission.

“This is fundamentally a plea, a call, an alarm for investment in the infrastructure of this country,” he added.

The report is aimed at policy makers, and the board is making efforts to put it on the agendas of the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators. Wright said he’s well aware, however, that the report’s broad-based and costly objectives will be difficult to push through in the current climate.

“Anything that appears to have dollar signs associated with it has become more complicated,” he said.


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