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America: From educational leader to underachiever

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on April 29, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
April 27, 2012 5:29 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

One of the strangest political utterances this year was Rick Santorum’s claim that it was snobbery – on the part of Barack Obama – to encourage all American students to continue their educations after high school.

America’s problem is not an excess of higher education. Just the opposite.

Today’s young Americans are increasingly less likely to earn diplomas than their parents; in fact, we will soon see the first generation that is less educated than the generation before it.

Why worry about this? The Wall Street Journal on Thursday described the real-life consequences of leaving school too early:

• High school grads nearly double unemployment rate of college grads.

• Americans with bachelor’s degrees earn 45 percent more than their demographic peers who stopped at high school.

• We’re not just talking academics. Many factories are demanding the equivalent of community college degrees, including for new hires.

• In the new global economy, education is the path to competitiveness. Lack of it is the path to national failure.

Not every kid belongs in college, but the vast majority belong in some kind of post-secondary education, whether it be technical training or graduate school.

In higher education, the United States has gone from being world leader to underachiever. It’s true that there’s a limit to how many students can benefit from academics. But America isn’t anywhere close to that limit.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tracks the number of citizens in developed nations who’ve gone on to earn at least a two-year degree after high school. In terms of percentages, America ranks 15th among economically advanced nations.

American students are not dumber than their counterparts in South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia and other countries that now have better educated young adults. Those places are doing something right; we’re doing something wrong. American intellectual potential is going to waste.

The Wall Street Journal notes some of the symptoms:

Our college dropout rates are excessively high (though Washington state does relatively well here). Tuitions have been going through the roof – prices have risen 87 percent over the last 10 years, after adjusting for increased levels of financial aid.

The American financial aid system – “a dizzying array of grants and loans, tax deductions and scholarships – is confusing and intimidating, especially to families new to higher education. Many parents and would-be students look at the sticker price of college and don’t look any further.

There are umpteen other problems, including low expectations and standards in the K-12 system, shocking dropout rates among black teens and Latinos, and the high number of high school graduates who need so much remedial education that they give up on their hopes.

Students from across the world still flock to America’s excellent colleges. More Americans should be doing the same.

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