A lifecycle approach to putting higher education within reach

By Martha Kanter

The following is an excerpt from What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Financial Future of Families, Communities and the Nation, a report produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and Corporation for Enterprise Development. Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign, contributed the chapter “A Lifecycle Approach to Putting Higher Education Within Reach.”

A generation ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of adults who were college graduates. Our international competitiveness was unmatched, and our universities were the envy of the world. Today the United States is not even among the top 10 nations in terms of college graduates. Our young adults perform at abysmally lower rates in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving than their peers in 21 other countries. This dramatic decline in academic achievement has serious implications for all of us—for the individuals whose education attainment stalls out too early, for their families, and for the nation as a whole.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects that by 2020, 65 percent of our nation’s workforce will need an associate’s, undergraduate, or advanced degree to meet the needs of the economy. Yet even as postsecondary education becomes increasingly essential for meaningful workforce participation, two powerful trends from the opposite direction are also intensifying: the growing cost of higher education and the growing economic inequality of our society.

Approximately 80 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enroll in college, and more than one-half of them attain a college degree. By contrast, only 29 percent of students from low-income families matriculate, and fewer than one in ten go on to graduate. The bottom line is that students from low-income families earn bachelor’s degrees at one-eighth the rate—9 percent versus 75 percent—of their more advantaged counterparts by age 24.

All of these trends have been years in the making, but their convergence has serious implications for our country. An economically stable life requires a good job. Good jobs, in turn, increasingly will require postsecondary education — but at the same time, postsecondary education is becoming increasingly out of reach.

The United States was never intended to be a traditional class-bound society where people are born to a certain station in life and remain there all their days. Yet this may become our reality. Already, more than 40 percent of the poorest American children (those in the bottom quintile) remain there into adulthood, as does nearly the same percentage of the children born into the richest quintile.

This vision of our Founding Fathers—of education as the bedrock for the freedom and happiness of the people—requires renewed commitment from every generation. Our urgent task now is to ensure that our nation’s young adults, including and indeed especially those from less advantaged families, have the resources to pursue the education they will need to live the twenty-first century version of the “free and happy” life envisioned by our nation’s founders 230 years ago.

What America’s founders believed as a matter of principle has been amply borne out by scholarly research. Educated people are indeed significantly happier and healthier than uneducated people, and the higher the level of educational attainment, the more significant the differences. Educated people form more stable families. This has been so for at least the past 70 years and, again, the higher the rate of educational attainment, the more significant the difference. Better-educated people participate more fully in civil society and politics. All of these outcomes contribute to the nation’s social capital—a term the founders might not have used but that captures the humanizing and civilizing effects they so highly esteemed.

What interventions are helping today’s students? Find out in the report.

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Martha Kanter is executive director of the College Promise Campaign and a distinguished senior fellow at New York University's Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Martha Kanter

is executive director of the College Promise Campaign and a distinguished senior fellow at New York University’s Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy.