Higher Education

The Next Generation: Higher Education Increasingly Not Within Reach, Say Some

Growing up in America, parents have always stressed education – from the immigrants who came upon our shores looking for an opportunity and a better life for their children to those who were born here and worked their way up the corporate ladder, built businesses and gained the American Dream. But getting a college education today is becoming increasingly more difficult, especially for those who are not experiencing upward mobility, but rather the reverse.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the U.S. is now the only major economy in the world where the younger generation is not going to be better educated than the older. “It’s something of great significance because much of today’s economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills – and that is now at risk,” says Mr. Schleicher.

In December 2012, the OECD reported its education statistics, which showed that only about one in five young adults in the United states reaches a higher level of education than their parents – among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world. What’s more, about one in five young adults in the U.S. are now defined in educational terms as “downwardly mobile” – such as children who have graduate parents but who don’t reach university level themselves.

In fact, the U.S., in the space of a generation, has gone from first place to 14th in graduation rates. Why? There is the spiraling cost of higher education in the United States and the collective student debt, which has exceeded a trillion dollars. But there are also other problems, according to Mr. Schleicher, which are rooted in the inequalities of the school system. He says that the level of social segregation and the excessive link between home background and success in school is “cutting off the supply” between secondary school and university. The meritocratic, migrant energy in U.S. culture is no longer operating in the school system. “If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it’s a really serious issue,” says Mr. Schleicher.

When a U.S. Senate committee examined this sense of imperiled optimism, in a hearing called “Helping More Young People Achieve the American Dream”, one expert witness said that the U.S. education system reflects a wider picture of the “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Moreover, in a study by Pew Research Group, when it compared the outcomes of young people in 10 western countries in a project called “Does America Promote Mobility as Well as Other Countries?”, it found the U.S. had the strongest link between family wealth and educational success — and the lowest mobility.

Reasons for Optimism

There can be a silver lining to the challenges the U.S. faces with higher education. We have financial resources, the capacity and the flexibility to change course quickly and to catch up. There are plans already in place to recover lost ground, with a promise from President Obama that the U.S. will regain its global first place in graduation rates by 2020. And as part of this drive, the American Association of Community Colleges, in a project called Reclaiming the American Dream, has an ambitious plan to create five million more college places.