Topping College Graduate Rates, Is It Worth It?

President Obama wants the nation to produce 8 million more college graduates by the year 2020. But can it be done, and how much would it cost? Host Michel Martin puts those questions to Anthony Carnevale, Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will continue our series looking at young people and how they are interacting online. Later in the program we'll look at how social media sites like Facebook and Twitter might help educators create more effective lesson plans. That's later.

But first, as President Obama begins his second term in office, we continue our focus on some of the unresolved issues from his first four years. Today we're talking about something the president cares about and talks about often - which is education - and often the focus is on K through 12. But the president has made some key commitments in higher education too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college and meet a new goal. By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.

MARTIN: To meet the president's goal, the country would need to produce eight million additional college graduates by the year 2020. But some observers are saying that the path to that goal may be more complicated and expensive than the administration has acknowledged. To talk more about this we've called upon Anthony Carnevale.

He is the director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and he's with us once again. Professor Carnevale, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit more about what the president said. He wants America to lead the world again in the proportion of college graduates. Could you just give us an example of where the country stands now?

CARNEVALE: We were number one in the world in terms of college graduates until 1992. And we've been slipping ever since. We're 12 or 13th now. And there has been a persistent itch to do something about that to(ph) two or three administrations.

MARTIN: Who's number one?

CARNEVALE: Number one in the world is Belgium. Although people say how can you compare us to Belgium. Well, Canada beats us too.

MARTIN: So the president says that that is a goal we can meet. Is it a modest goal? Is it an ambitious goal? How would you characterize it?

CARNEVALE: It is an appropriate goal. We know that we're under-producing college graduates in America. We have been since about 1982. The demand for college, as is evident in the wage premium for college, which has risen from 30 percent in 1983 to 84 percent by 2002, tells us that the increase in the demand has been about three percent a year. And the increase in supply of college talent has been about one percent.

So it's not just a noble goal; it's a very practical economic goal.

MARTIN: When you say we are under-producing college graduates, you mean what by that?

CARNEVALE: Employers say all the time that they're not finding the talent they need, and in truth they're right. The demand began rising in '83 because of powerful technology change that began automating all repetitive tasks in jobs - leaving the non-repetitive tasks, is the short story.

And in the end, that required higher levels of education, and in America that means college.

MARTIN: So let's talk about what it will take to get there. One of the things that, you know, people have talked a lot about in recent years is the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, which has far outstripped the rate of inflation. Is that one reason why the U.S. is under-producing college graduates, as you said? And is that something that policy can do something to address?

CARNEVALE: In the end the problem is financial, and truth be told, it's going to be very hard to get there from here. If we do produce enough to take back the number one spot in the world, it would cost us something on the order - you get different estimates - some people say 100 billion, others say 150. Some go a little above that. But $150 billion in the current budgetary climate is a huge ask.

So the president and others have moved to a different strategy, which is they're going to try to make college affordable by making college more efficient.

MARTIN: How is that $100 billion figure arrived at? When you're saying realistically it would cost $100 billion, what does that pay for?

CARNEVALE: In the end, in order to produce an Associates Degree or a Bachelors Degree in America it costs us about $25,000 a person. Multiply that times 10 and you get 250 - you get 10 million, you get 250 billion. So there are other ways to arrive at it and that number, you can get at it several ways, but that's the simplest way and it ends up being just about the same as more sophisticated ways.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about President Obama's stated goal to produce eight million additional college graduates by the year 2020. Our guest is Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. You said that reaching this goal is going to cost more than most people understand.

So what is the administration doing from a policy perspective to try to reach this goal?

CARNEVALE: In the end, this administration and the Bush administration before it have recognized that in order to join the middle class you've got to get some kind of post-secondary education in the American economy nowadays. And Bill Clinton used to say we ought to give everybody high school plus two years and he intended to fund it.

What's happened since is that has become less and less affordable. So the political position has moved. Everybody says everybody ought to go to college who can handle it and it ought to be the majority of us, but the strategy ends up being affordability. How do we do this with less money?

MARTIN: What about the whole question of building a workforce that, you know, for want of a better phrase, looks like America? I mean, we recently spoke with John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. He's been tapped as the new president of Morehouse College. It's a very prestigious all-male historically black college, you know, in Atlanta. But he was very candid about the challenges that he's facing in trying to, you know, maintain standards and so forth at his institution.

It's not just HBCs, but there are a number of institutions around the country that specifically serve the Native American population and that have large percentages of Latino students who see themselves as minority-serving institutions. Do they have to do something different to meet this goal?

CARNEVALE: In the end it comes down to money and whether or not we're going to continue to give funding to institutions for special purposes - that is, to serve special populations. Americans are not happy to do that. The real trend here that's very powerful is that the white flight that began in the United States in the 1950s, where white people fled the center city and fled African-Americans, in truth, in part, but what they were fleeing to, they were fleeing to better schools, better high schools.

And in the end, the denouement, the result of all that, is very apparent now in higher education, which is that the white flight to the leafy green suburbs is now moved to the leafy green campuses. And our higher education system is very stratified with Hispanics and blacks concentrated in the two-year and non-easy open admission four-year schools and white people moving up very aggressively into the upper tiers.

And that makes a substantial difference in the outcomes.

MARTIN: OK. Give us some numbers, if you would.

CARNEVALE: Over the last - since about 1995, if we look at all the movement of white students into higher education, almost 80 percent of them are moving into the top 430 schools. African-Americans have been there at about an eight or nine percent rate, and that's stalled. It's not growing. It hasn't grown since the middle '90s.

And in the case of Hispanics, as a result of their growing population share, their share of the higher end of the higher education system - the good four-year schools - is declining. And more and more both African-Americans and Hispanics are concentrated in the two-year schools where graduation rates are 40 percent as opposed to the more successful four-year colleges, where they spend a lot more money and their graduation rates are over 80 percent.

MARTIN: Is there a strategy to address this?

CARNEVALE: Not that I can tell. I mean, the truth is that if you and I are college presidents and they start cutting our budgets, and then they tell us on top of that that we've got to have higher graduation rates in faster time to graduation, the only thing we can really do is compete with each other for the students who can go full time and pay full cost. And that's what's happening in the system. It's pushing the people who are working when they go to college and people who come from less affluent families, down the line into the less successful institutions.

MARTIN: Along those lines, we've talked a lot about the economics of this goal. What about the academics? And that's related, that 22 percent of American young people don't graduate from high school on time. That's a fifth. And we've frequently talked, and you've talked with us about how many high school graduates now come to college unprepared to do the work, and as a consequence of that, they're spending their college time doing remedial work. Which means they have to pay for that, and they often have to extend the time that they're in college because they're spending their beginning years in college doing remedial work. Is there a strategy to address that?

CARNEVALE: In truth, no. The urge over the next decade - and perhaps beyond in higher education - is for efficiency. And efficiency is about getting more bang for the buck, and in the end, that means that the whole system is trying to move upstream to get the more affluent and well-prepared student.

The whole apparatus has an unyielding industrial organization that the competition is about becoming more selective, always. That's how you become a better college, is you get better students. So there is a tendency to move away from minorities and move away from low-income kids.

MARTIN: So you're actually painting a very dire picture here, and I wonder if that's because of the questions I'm asking, or because, in fact, you feel that there's a very large gulf between what the administration is hoping to do and the actual steps that it will take to get there. Or is it that that goal might be achieved, but it's really going to be achieved by middle-class white kids? Is that really what you're saying?

CARNEVALE: In the end, that's what I'm saying. And there is some optimism in this. That is, there are - every year, we graduate four million kids from high school. And every year, about 500,000 of them that are in the upper half of their high school graduating class, we know when we look at them eight years later, they haven't got either a two-year or a four-year degree. So there is some low-hanging fruit here, and part of it is minority. Part of it is African-American, Hispanic, but the majority of it is white working class.

MARTIN: Well, to be continued. Anthony Carnevale is the director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

CARNEVALE: Thank you.

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