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Mark Bennett Opinion

August 14, 2010

Mark Bennett: Recession may be creating ‘baby boom’ effect in terms of people pursuing higher education

TERRE HAUTE — America seems to be reacquainting itself with the lost message that college is good. More education leads to more options, more pay and more job security — usually.

Many universities and colleges anticipate record enrollments when fall classes start later this month. Surges typically occur during recessions, and heaven knows the latest was the Mother of All Recessions. In the fall of 2008, an all-time high of 39.6 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in a two- or four-year college. The growth, particularly at the community college level, appears to have expanded even more, though updated figures aren’t yet complete.

People realize a college degree can be a life preserver in a stormy economy.

Could such a significant jump in the number of Americans pursuing a college degree alter the nation’s future, just as the post-World War II baby boom once did?

“That’s a very, very important question,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president of Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group working to improve graduation rates.

“The question that has to be answered now is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” added Sugar, who has an office in Zionsville.

The U.S. must capitalize on this surge. That will require a shift in focus and priorities nationally. “We have a pretty leaky system, and this recession presents an increased priority for institutions to improve on that,” said Josh Powers, chairman of the department of educational leadership at the Indiana State University College of Education.

The recession-driven enrollment boom could eventually help hoist the United States’ position in the world marketplace, if these new students finish their schooling. For many years, barely half of all young adults who enroll at a four-year college complete their degree within six years. At two-year colleges, less than one in four students finish in three years.

And for a growing but oft-overlooked group — part-time college students — the rate of graduation is even lower, Sugar said, “which leaves a huge portion of kids” without diplomas. Part-time students comprise almost 40 percent of all U.S. college student bodies, he explained. Yet graduation rates charted nationally reflect only full-time students; the part-timers’ success rates can only be estimated. Twenty-three states that have joined Complete College America’s Alliance of States have agreed to provide those numbers for their colleges. If more states participate, the national picture becomes more accurate.

One thing is certain, though: America needs all of these recent college “enrollment boomers” to finish what they’ve started.

Just a decade ago, the U.S. still held its long-established status as the world’s leader in college-educated citizens. Today, we’re 12th, with only 40 percent of all 25- to 34-year-olds holding at least an associate’s degree, according to the College Board.

“That’s a scary statistic,” said John Beacon, vice president for enrollment management at Indiana State University.

“We have got to have a better educated population in this country, or this country is going to lose its grip,” he added.

Right now, other nations more firmly grasp the connection between education and prosperity. While the college graduation level in the U.S. has changed little over the last few decades, foreign countries ratcheted up an emphasis on higher ed. Canada leads the planet, with 55.8 percent of its young adults holding at least a two-year degree, followed by South Korea and Russia (both 55.5 percent), Japan (53.7), New Zealand (47.3) and Ireland (43.9). Five others ahead of the U.S. are Norway, Israel, France, Belgium and Australia, according to the College Board.

Which begs the not-so-delicate question, what the hell happened to us?

A stronger, collective national will once paved the way for baby boomers to earn college diplomas. Thus, the U.S. fares much better, globally, among older workers, having the fourth-highest percentage of 55- to 64-year-olds with at least an associate’s degree.

In the meantime, college tuition and housing costs went through the roof, increasing 439 percent — 439 percent — from 1982 to 2008, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Facing huge loan debt, students often work longer hours in their jobs, yet many institutions haven’t adjusted their class scheduling structures to accommodate those students, Sugar explained.

Many drop out. When asked why, Sugar said, “they do not say, ‘Because it was too hard.’” Instead, most say they couldn’t balance classes with their job schedule or child-care availability.

The problem hasn’t dropped off the national radar screen. Last week, President Obama set a goal for the U.S. to regain its No. 1 spot as the most college-educated country by 2020. (The College Board’s recommended goal is to have 55 percent of young adults with degrees by 2025.) Unfortunately, Obama’s ability to back up his call with federal funding is limited. Health care, wars and recession recovery consume are costly. States, including Indiana, have imposed budget cuts to their public universities and colleges.

Despite all of the obstacles, Americans will flow onto college campuses in record numbers this fall, especially community colleges. Indiana State, for example, could see a 32-percent jump in first-time freshmen. ISU implemented an intensified recruiting effort over the last few years, and it’s paying off. Improving the graduation rate has also become a priority.

As of Monday, 635 new freshmen had registered for fall classes at ISU. If 55 percent of them graduate four years from now, that will put 350 educated men and women into the U.S. workforce. It also means, as Sugar put it, that “kids who have high aspirations fulfill them, instead of having broken dreams.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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