The numbers are bleak and -- for anyone who cares about the vibrancy of the American economy or the importance of an educated citizenry -- deeply worrisome: the United States has fallen to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 7th in college-going rates, and is the only industrialized country whose rates are falling.
And perhaps most troubling of all, the rates are lowest among those segments of the American populace that are growing the fastest.
It is against that backdrop that Congress is renewing the Higher Education Act this year, and at a U.S. Senate committeee hearing  Thursday, an eclectic panel of observers who work around but not in higher education offered their views on how lawmakers might confront the problems of students' access to and success in higher education and, importantly, hold colleges and universities accountable for solving them.
Some of what was said at the hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was predictable (if still significant): Trinity Thorpe, a Pepperdine University student who was a truant through seventh grade (and was rescued by the Upward Bound program that encourages disadvantaged students to attend college), gave an impassioned plea  for lawmakers to sustain it and the other TRIO programs, which President Bush has proposed eliminating. Democratic lawmakers slammed as wasteful the federal subsidies for banks and guarantee agencies that lend money through the student loan programs, and senators of both parties said Congress and colleges must look for ways to hold down the price of getting a higher education.
And Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the Republican chairman of the Senate panel, managed to work in his by-now stock line about how in today's economy, "Learning is never over. School is never out."
As is often the case at hearings like this, fresh ideas seemed in short supply, but a few emerged. Two relative "outsiders" to higher education, Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust,  which promotes educational attainment at all levels for low-income students, and Brian Bosworth, president of FutureWorks,  a research and consulting group that focuses on economic growth and workforce development, both credited American higher education for bolstering student access but gave colleges lesser marks for their performance in graduating students.
"A lot of folks within higher education think their results [in graduating students] are about as good as they can do," but it's "quite clear that's not the case," said Haycock, whose organization has produced a searchable database  of college graduation rates that she argued shows that some institutions just do a better job than others with comparable finances and student bodies.
The big problem, she and Bosworth both argued, is that is that colleges have more financial incentives to let students in (particularly institutions that get state funding based on enrollments) than they do to keep them. "Schools are paid for enrollment, not for success," said Bosworth, "so it shouldn't come as a great shock to us that that's what we get."
Haycock proposed that in extending the Higher Education Act, Congress direct states to design and create their own programs that hold colleges and universities accountable, through a series of "stretch" goals (and, she implied, corresponding rewards and punishments), for their accomplishments in achieving both "ac-cess" and "suc-cess" for students.