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Addressing the Quantity AND Quality of Degrees

It is no secret that, as a nation, we are focusing more and more on college readiness. The recent Lumina Report  takes note of the economic imperative associated with this:

“The United States risks an unprecedented shortage of college-educated workers in coming years. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems estimates the need to educate nearly 800,000 more college graduates each year from now through 2025 to meet the growing needs of the workforce. Lumina's goal is to increase the higher education attainment rate of the United States to 60 percent by the year 2025. We must work harder—and faster—to educate enough college graduates to sustain the vitality of our local communities and the nation’s economy.”

While I applaud Lumina’s attention to our nation’s need for college graduates, as well as their intellectual and financial support for this effort, I have to say that the act of attaining a degree, while critical, is not enough to keep us vital as a nation. This reminds me of a quote from Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. She says:

“We count the number of degrees conferred; we count the number of faculty with doctorate degrees; we count the number of articles published in specific types of journals…but none of these counts truly equate with quality; none of these ensure global competencies; and none of these counts guarantee a competitive workforce.”

It is the quality of the degree and “applicable global competencies” that will help us close the global achievement gap which is widening between the United States and other industrialized nations.  This concept is also fundamental to the work of Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The fact that we must not only focus on a huge increase in degree attainment but also on quality degrees is sobering.

As a nation we are attempting to address this issue, and we are indeed sending more students to college.  But, as William Bowen and colleagues noted in Crossing the Finish Line, educational attainment in the U.S. is still relatively low and stagnant.  In 2006, the U.S. was ranked 20th among member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with only about 70% of our graduates embark on a postsecondary journey annually and only 56% attain a degree. In this book,  as part of their very exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) study,  the authors were able to study North Carolina high schools in depth, concluding, as Clifford Adelman did in Answers in the Toolbox that the most significant predictor of bachelor’s degree attainment was the academic rigor offered by the high school.  This is good news because we can address rigor.   The bad news, however, is that we are still not closing the SES gap for our students, and even those minority and low-income students who do matriculate to college tend to “aim low” in their postsecondary choices.  (At my request, Dr. Harriet Custer has written an informative abstract on Crossing the Finish Line.)

It is clear that the challenges around degree attainment are significant. So I’m going to stop focusing on the negative statistics for now and end this on a more positive note with some wisdom from a friend of mine, Victor Villasenor. Victor is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of Rain of Gold, Burro Genius, and Crazy Loco Love, among many other books. He also has two sons, one of whom graduated from an AVID program and went on to college (Victor attended but never graduated, a saga well documented in Burro Genius).  In my interview with Victor last year, he reminded me that the attainment of a college degree for his son David, who is now a physician, was only a by-product of the most important aspect of the work he says we do in AVID. Anyone who has read Victor’s books or heard him speak knows that his view of the universe could best be described as…unconventional. Still, I think he has a point. “As far as getting kids to college,” he said, “I don’t think that needs to be the objective. The objective is to give kids the tools so they love learning, so that they respect books and knowledge. AVID teachers need to get students ready for that.”

That approach, coupled with some systemic changes, might just increase the quantity and quality of both degrees and careers.

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Reader Comments (3)


I absolutely agree with your post. As the mother of two students with college degrees and careers started I believe the most important thing my husband and I did for them was foster a love of books and learning. Getting a degree is just one step in the credentialing process. Creating a life for oneself of constant learning goes considerably beyond the degree.


October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Bell


Thanks for the response. As a nation, we could do a much better job of emphasizing learning, as opposed to getting a grade or even a degree.


October 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterRob Gira

Great blog. I like the way you have it laid out. How can I subscribe to RSS? Thanks.www.giftfashions.com

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershadows

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