Reports about flagging U.S. competitiveness are about as common as college presidents quoting The World Is Flat or politicians worrying about jobs being transported to China or India.
But a new study being released aims to do something different: It is trying to quantify the number of degrees the United States needs to keep up with international competitors and to spur the development of plans to educate millions more students between now and 2025. "Hitting Home: Quality, Cost and Access Challenges Confronting Higher Education Today" will be released today by the Making Opportunity Affordable  project.
The report -- based on a series of research projects -- compares the production of degrees in the United States with those of the country's top international competitors, who already are showing signs of overtaking the U.S. in educating their citizens. Based on the percentage of citizens with college degrees in those countries, the report estimates that the United States needs to educate an additional 15.6 million people (with either bachelor's or associate degrees) by 2025. That would be another 781,000 degrees a year on top of current levels, or a 37 percent increase over current production.
Such an increase would bring to 55 percent the proportion of the adult population with a college degree -- the percentage projected for Canada, Japan and South Korea by 2025. (Those are the three countries identified as the top performing in college attainment.)
If that isn't enough of a challenge, the report also raises the issue of the racial and ethnic make-up of those potential new graduates, and suggests that the United States will not be successful internationally if it continues with current patterns in which black and Latino students lag in college attendance and graduation. With a simultaneous push to close that gap, the number of new degrees needed would rise to more than 18 million.
Citing data from a number of sources, the report outlines reasons Americans should be concerned about losing their historic edge in higher education:
- Seven nations already lead the United States in degree attainment (Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Sweden).
- More than half of Japanese and Canadian 25- to 34-year olds have a bachelor's or associate degree, compared to less than 4 in 10 Americans.
- Although the United States ranks among the top 5 countries in the proportion of young people who enroll in college, it ranks 16th in the proportion who finish college.
- American colleges award about 18 degrees annually for every 100 full-time students enrolled, compared to about 25 degrees for countries such as Britain, Japan and Portugal.
The report also analyzes state performance at meeting the goal of having 55 percent of the adult population with a college degree, and finds the states lacking. No state meets that goal today, and only eight states and the District of Columbia are on track to hit that percentage by 2025: (in order of proximity to the goal today): Massachusetts, Connecticut, Colorado, New Jersey, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maryland. While all of those states are above 40 percent today, seven states are below 30 percent (from the bottom): West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Nevada, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Travis Reindl, author of the report and leader of the Making College Affordable project, said that the state projections are based both on percentage of residents educated and the states' ability to attract educated people to move from other states. "Every state, whether projecting a gap or not, faces a real challenge," Reindl said, especially when factoring in the need to bring black and Latino degree holders up to comparable levels with other groups.
Some states may have "natural advantages" today because they are perceived as desirable places to live, Reindl said. But he added that states without such advantages can improve now in part because technology makes everyone connected and businesses are more willing than in the past to relocate. "You can situate a business anywhere, and a lot of what business is looking for is a ready-to-go talent pool," he said.
In the months ahead, the project plans to issue a series of additional reports, covering topics such as college costs, and also to work with selected states on creating models for reaching the ambitious enrollment targets.
The cost report "is really going to dig into the data to unpack what has driven up the per-student cost," Reindl said. He said that the report would surprise people. "While you hear all this talk that our faculty are so expensive, instruction isn't the big factor and has gone down in most sectors," he said. Among the categories going up: administrative employee costs, expenses associated with competing with other colleges, and student services.
The report makes clear that the project will seek significant changes from colleges. The report quotes Charles Miller, chair of the Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  as talking about the lack of a true bottom line in higher education. And it offers praise for state systems that have adopted policies to weed out degree programs attracting few students or that are duplicative.
But the report also talks about the need for significant new resources, even if colleges can find ways to achieve significant savings.
"We can't just throw money at this problem, and the money we'd need is not going to materialize," Reindl said. "But you have to have sustained public investment in higher education and you have to have better cost effectiveness." Maryland is a good example of how these efforts can be combined, Reindl said, as the public higher education system there has both achieved significant cost savings and attracted new levels of public support.
The report calls on states and higher education systems to set goals and metrics to measure quality, cost issues and access -- and future efforts of the project will provide more details on how to do this, as will the model programs being set up in various states.
Multiple strategies will be needed to meet these goals, the report says. It calls for:
- Strengthening collaboration among institutions, with better articulation and transfer agreements.
- Focusing resources on "core academic priorities." The report praises efforts in Ohio, Virginia and Illinois to identify programs that may merit elimination or retooling.
- Streamlining student transitions into higher education. The report notes such programs as the California State University System's work to give 11th graders a sense of how prepared they are for college-level work.
- Promoting timely degree completion through providing colleges with financial incentives if their students finish on time, and by helping students start college with credit for previously done college-level work.
- Redesigning academic programs to improve student results while cutting costs. The report praises the efforts of the National Center for Academic Transformation  to consider new models for faculty-student interaction (using professors more as tutors than as lecturers while adding uses of technology).
The Making Opportunity Affordable project is being managed by Jobs for the Future, will feature research prepared by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and has financial support from the Lumina Foundation for Education.