A higher education call to action

Margaret Spellings President, US Chamber of Commerce Foundation
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Florida Senator Marco Rubio understands the importance of education and hard work. He’s living it. Recently, he joined business leaders, policymakers and education stakeholders at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum to deliver a simple message: higher education provides the opportunity for success, but it does not guarantee it.

Rubio also stressed the need for enhanced interaction between businesses and institutions of education to truly address the skills gap and respond to the needs of today’s students. He cautioned the audience that it’s going to take hard work. I couldn’t agree more.

The United States has some of the finest institutions in the world, and yet, our education system still faces some real challenges we cannot afford to ignore.

For decades now, taxpayers have spent significant dollars to expand college access and then just hoped for the best.

Consider this. Forty years ago, 176,000 Americans used Pell grants from the federal government to support their postsecondary education. Today, a whopping 9.4 million students get federal aid. But college completion rates nationwide currently hover around 50 percent at four-year institutions and average about 20 percent at two-year colleges.

We must do better. I applaud the recent efforts of influential leaders from Marc Morial of the National Urban League to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, now president of Purdue University, to initiate a new call to action on higher education. American Dream 2.0 is a bipartisan coalition of national leaders focused on improving college access, affordability and completion by making smarter financial investments. According to research conducted for American Dream 2.0, half of engaged American voters now believe our nation’s colleges and universities need major changes or a complete overhaul.

Some students don’t go on to college or to get a certificate because they lack information, can’t navigate financial aid systems and cannot bear skyrocketing costs.

Among those who do go to college, some students pay too much and take too long to obtain their credentials. In some cases, those degrees have questionable value in the marketplace, especially when half of businesses in the U.S. report that they can’t find applicants with the skills they need.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the structure of student financial aid systems has done little to promote better outcomes.

The time has come to start focusing on results.

We need policies for incentivizing degree completion. The bar is no longer how many students start college but how many actually finish.

We need learning to lead to relevant skills that meet labor market demands. We need to know where the jobs are, what skills are needed to do the jobs of today and the future, and which institutions are producing graduates who can compete for those jobs.

We must fix complicated and counterproductive federal financial aid systems. Are we trying to help students go to college and complete their degrees or are we trying to keep them out? It’s hard to tell with the current system.

We need more and better information from higher education institutions about how money is spent, how much degrees cost and how well credentials actually match job market needs. When 84 percent of engaged American voters think colleges should be required to make information on graduation rates, loan repayment and job placement accessible to students and parents, then institutions should provide that information to their consumers.

And, we must embrace innovation. Every sector of our economy is using technology in new and innovative ways. So should postsecondary education. We need more creative thinking around delivering college instruction in cost-effective and relevant ways.

Polling conducted as part of the American Dream 2.0 project finds that the vast majority of informed American voters say that earning a college degree or credential is still “worth it.” Opinions run high, but the reality of high college costs, low completion rates and business skepticism about graduates’ skills flies in the face of such sentiments.

Higher education in the United States has long been the envy of the world, and for good reason. But resting on our laurels for too long may come back to bite us, especially in light of rigorous efforts by other nations to knock us off the pedestal. It is time for higher education leaders to step up to the plate and heed the growing calls for reform from policymakers, business leaders and consumers alike.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The U.S. Chamber will co-host an event Tuesday February 19th, “Getting to Work: What Students and Employers Need from Higher Education” with Young Invincibles in Washington, D.C.