Andrew S. Rosen is chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc. and the author of Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy.
Over the last century, our country's traditional, world-class universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley have played an essential role in vaulting the United States into worldwide economic, military, and sociopolitical primacy, and they are indispensable to maintaining that position. But our obsessive focus on and considerable investment in these exclusive institutions, and the many others that emulate them, sometimes lead us to pay too little attention to the more inclusive schools that serve far more students, in far less glamorous surroundings.
As taxpayers, we're helping to fund an increasingly lavish college experience at institutions that cater to the few. The competition for the best students has led universities to turn themselves into full-fledged resorts; they've spent billions building climbing walls, French bistros and 20-person hot-tubs to entice students to their campuses. Meanwhile, low-income students can't find a spot in their local community colleges for lack of funding.
We're living in a time of profound economic challenges, and unlike in the Gold Rush era during which the land-grant colleges like Berkeley were founded, the country's greatest resource today isn't in the ground; it's in the skills of our citizens, who urgently need education to develop their competencies. For some, an elite education is a wonderful way to develop their talents. Indeed, if we could afford it, it would be a tremendous boon to countless others.
But for many, many more, there are legitimate alternatives that will give them the tools they need for advancement: to help the kid sweeping the drugstore learn to work the register or manage the shop; to help the register clerk become a technician or a pharmacist; to help the pharmacist become the store owner or even own a chain of stores. Our country doesn't have a person to waste.
Between 1973 and 2008, the percentage of jobs in the U.S. economy that required postsecondary education more than doubled, rising from 28 percent to 59 percent.
When it comes to producing these educated workers, America has become a notable laggard. In 1995 the United States was a world leader among the most developed countries when it came to the percentage of twenty-five to thirty-four-year-old population with postsecondary credentials. By 2009, we had dropped to sixteenth place, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One of the few postsecondary stats in which the United States leads is the rate at which its students drop out of college.
It's downright embarrassing -- something President Obama acknowledged in an address to Congress soon after taking office in 2009. Referring directly to the college dropout rate, he said, "This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know that countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow."
In the same speech, Obama laid out an audacious goal: "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Like many grand political plans, however, this one will require major changes to our higher ed system, something that won't be accomplished without challenging some sacred cows.
America has faced pressures like this before, particularly after World War II, when our nation decided to send millions of returning GIs to college. During those periods, the U.S. government had a ready tool to address this kind of problem: it could throw money at it.
That won't work in these times, given the dismal fiscal condition of the federal and state governments. States are slashing budgets to keep pace with falling tax dollars; instead of seeking to add seats to classrooms in state universities, legislators in many states are being forced to make sharp cuts in student enrollment to try to bring budgets closer to balance.
At a time when we desperately need more students to gain access to a high-quality college education, more spending won't be available to smooth the way. Instead, America needs to make the dollars it spends on higher education work more efficiently. Ultimately, we'll have to make choices between providing immersive, amenity-rich and socially focused residential college experiences for a select few, or expanding access and offering less elaborate but more focused high-quality education for a vastly larger group of Americans. This may challenge the typical American view of "college", but our higher ed system needs to evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.
Editor's Note: Check back in 2012 for clips from our video interview with Rosen.