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As college graduate rank falls, Obama unveils education push

As the U.S.'s world ranking for college graduates falls, President Obama unveiled an ambitious initiative planned to expand access to low-income students.
U.S. College Graduations
Students are seen during a graduation ceremony at Reed College, Portland, Ore., May 23, 2011.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly affirmed throughout his presidency an ambitious goal of restoring the U.S. as the world’s leader in producing college graduates by 2020. On Thursday, he told university presidents and non-profit leaders who had gathered at the White House for an event on expanding college opportunity for low-income students, that he’s going to continue to “act on my own if Congress is deadlocked.”

But just six years out, the country is still dismally far from reaching the president’s 2020 benchmark.

When Obama announced that goal in the early days of his first term, the United States was ranked 12th among the world’s nations in the proportion of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who had college degrees.

Today, the U.S. is ranked 14th, sliding amid a slew of executive orders set forth by Obama aimed at chipping away at the various hurdles that prevent many Americans, particularly low-income students, from achieving a college degree and entrée into the middle class.

At 14th in the world, the United States is just behind Israel, Belgium and France and well behind the world’s leaders in graduating college students -- Korea, Japan and Canada.

A lingering down economy, a widening wealth gap and masses of low-income students who either arrive at college unable to pay the steep costs of tuition or academically unprepared, all contribute to America’s difficulties in arming its students with a college degree.

But Obama has continued his efforts, with mixed success. He has successfully staved off Republican attempts to cut student aid programs. And the administration has been active in both pushing its agenda with Congress and circumventing it by signing executive orders that have done everything from raising the maximum award for Pell Grants to $5,635 to student loan reform, capping student loan rates and expanding education tax cuts.

“I’ve got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won’t, and I’ve got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission,” Obama said Thursday. “And today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda.". He used the bully pulpit to warn lawmakers that he’d use “my pen and my phone” to continue to rally stakeholders across the country, at colleges and in the non-profit sector to widen the gates of access to higher education, rather than wait for new legislation.

“The fact is if we hadn’t made a commitment as a country to send more people to college, Michelle and me, and maybe a few of you, wouldn’t be here today,” Obama said.

At the event, the president and first lady highlighted the administration’s latest initiative, in which the president joined leaders in higher education to announce more than 100 new commitments to expand college access and opportunity. The commitments came from more than 100 colleges and universities and 40 other organizations that vowed to enact creative new measures to help get more low-income students to college campuses and help more of them to handle the financial and social burdens that keep many of them from graduating.

The plans include bolstering remedial education, expanding financial aid and various channels to offer “real time” advice to students who may feel isolated on college campuses.

On a conference call Wednesday evening ahead of Thursday's event, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said the fate of a student’s future and standing on the economic ladder shouldn’t be determined by the economic class in which he or she is born. A child born in the bottom economic quintile has about a 5% chance of rising to the top quintile without a college degree. Those odds nearly quadruple when a college degree is earned.

“We are a country that does not believe the outcomes of your life should be overly determined by the accident of your birth,” Sperling said. “But statistics show that we need to do more.”

During Thursday’s event, Michelle Obama likened the plight of so many low-income students who’ve struggled to overcome a hard-scrabble economic lot to make it to college.

“I’m doing this because that story of opportunity through education is the story of my life, and I want them to know that it can be their story, too, but only if they devote themselves to continuing their education past high school,” Michelle Obama said. “But here’s the thing:  I know that that message alone isn’t enough.  Like I said, this is a two-way street, and that means we all have to step up.”  

Despite America’s shrinking standing among college graduate-producing nations, there has been some growth in recent years. In 2010, Americans earned 257,772 more college degrees than they had in 2008, according to a recent report by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. That growth includes nearly 100,000 Associate Degrees and more than 86,000 Bachelor’s Degrees. And the number of high school students dropping out of school is at its lowest point in 40 years, President Obama said, noting the dropout rate among Hispanic students has been cut in half over the last decade.

“Even after all these steps that we’ve taken over the last five years, we still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans,” Obama said. 

Indeed, as the administration touts the improved high school graduation rates and pushes for more innovative ways of helping poor students gain access to college, a relatively low percentage of them are landing on campuses following high school graduation.

In 2012, only 50.9% of recent low-income students who completed high school were enrolled in college. That’s down from a record-high of 58.4% in 2007, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. At the same time enrollment rates among middle- and high-income students have risen. About 64.7% of middle-income students and 80.7% of high-incomes students were in college.

The Pew data also show that after decades of a wide racial gap and racial disparities in college enrollment rates, about two-thirds of white, black and Hispanic high school graduates were enrolled in college at 68%, 67% and 67% respectively.

While President Obama’s various education initiatives and executive orders are ambitious, it doesn’t appear lost on the president that there is much more work to be done to get a college degree in the hands of more American students, in spite of their economic class.

“Even after all these steps that we’ve taken over the last five years, we still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, today only 30% of low-income students enroll in college right after high school and, far worse, by their mid-twenties only 9% earn a bachelor’s degree. 

“So if we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect,” he said. “There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping.”