Competition demands inclusion

July 17, 2005|By William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil and Eugene M. Tobin

EXPRESSIONS OF concern about America's ability to maintain its comparative advantage in fields such as information technology have made news, and the role of educational quality in this slippage has been noted. But one key connection has been left out of this discourse: In order to improve the quality of education, we have to make education more accessible to qualified students from a wider range of backgrounds.

In his new book The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman continues his exploration of the implications of globalization and cautions Americans about the dangers of being complacent in our ability to compete in knowledge-driven markets. Bill Gates issued a similar warning in remarks to the National Education Summit when he declared American high schools "obsolete" - in other words, unable to prepare our children for the modern economy. Comparative data suggest that Mr. Friedman and Mr. Gates have good reason to be concerned.

The United States, while still home to most of the world's finest institutions of higher education, has begun to lose its edge in the overall level of educational attainment. Although average educational attainment of 25- to 34-year-old Americans is still high relative to that found in most of the rest of the world, our population is no more educated than the populations in countries such as Finland and Belgium.

According to 2002 data, Canada (51 percent), Japan (50 percent) and several other countries have more college graduates per capita than the United States (39 percent). Our standing in the natural sciences and engineering is even more troubling, with 14 countries (such as Ireland and South Korea) boasting a higher number of degrees in these fields per capita than the United States. Microsoft and other high-tech firms have reason to worry about finding enough Americans to meet their requirements.

Even more worrying is that the rate of increase of educational attainment in America has slowed to a virtual halt just above a high school diploma. And this has occurred when the economic returns of a college degree are at a historic high: The market wants more college-educated workers, but American young people are not responding to the substantial financial incentives the market is offering.

Or, to be more precise, a large segment of the population is either unable or unwilling to respond. The children of the wealthiest Americans attend and graduate from college at very high rates; those from the middle of the income distribution have a lower chance of attending college, but are still more likely than not to do so.

One-fourth of our young people - those whose parents' income is below $30,000 - are severely limited in their college opportunities. Children from the bottom 25 percent in income are about half as likely as their most privileged peers to enroll in a higher-education program and are less likely still to graduate.

The inference is clear: Our ability to remain competitive in the global, knowledge-based economy depends heavily on our ability to better educate young people from the bottom of our socioeconomic hierarchy. We need to enable more of these students to attend college and also ensure that, once there, they are given the resources they need to graduate and succeed in the working world.

The weight of the evidence points to academic, social, health and informational deficits as the major sources of the college enrollment gap, though short-term financial constraints also play a role at the margin.

Here Mr. Gates' critique of American high schools is entirely appropriate, but further reforms are needed as well. Improving formal education at earlier ages is crucial, and at the most basic level, health care, nutrition and a supportive home and neighborhood environment set the tone for a child's academic life. Ensuring that students are aware of the full range of educational opportunities, from community colleges to the nation's most distinguished public and private institutions, as well as the practical "ins and outs" of the application and financial aid processes, is also likely to have a strong positive impact.

The vast majority of our students attend public institutions of higher education, and we can expect that many of the next generation of low-income college-goers will do the same. For this reason, it is essential that these colleges and universities be provided with the financial and other resources to educate their students to the standard necessitated by the global economy.

This will often mean larger state appropriations for regional, less-selective institutions, but it will also require freeing up selective state flagship universities to charge higher tuition (and give more need-based aid) so that they are better able to compete with their private peer institutions.

The increasingly level field on which the world economy is played out means that America must ensure that income-related constraints do not hamper us from competing at full strength.

William G. Bowen is president, Martin A. Kurzweil is a research associate and Eugene M. Tobin is a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They are co-authors of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education.

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