Op-Ed: College Degrees for a Million Low-Income Students by 2025

That'll help reduce inequality and improve democracy, but cost is an obstacle to keeping U.S. higher education the world's best.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Jun 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Rick Dalton is President and CEO of College for Every Student.

A college degree is the new finish line in education—the credential in today’s job market that a high school diploma held a generation ago. Though the finish line has been set, not nearly enough young people, particularly low-income students, are even starting the race.

According to the Lumina Foundation, 23 million new, high-paying jobs will go unfilled in the next decade because they require postsecondary training and credentials. It’s just as bleak in Europe, where a McKinsey report cites a lack of skills and training as a primary reason why nearly a quarter of European youths are without jobs.

The global higher education system is plagued with uncertainty and challenges. In 2012, researchers at the University of Melbourne ranked the U.S. higher education system No. 1 in the world despite its broken funding formula and other flaws. Yet since 1985, the price of a college education in the U.S. has increased 538 percent, while student loan debt now totals $1.2 trillion.

Meanwhile, technological changes are disrupting traditional models of teaching and learning, such that the next decade will bring a greater transformation in higher education than we saw in the last 100 years.

Consider what’s happening with MOOCs, or massive open online courses. For nearly two years, Harvard, MIT, and other universities worldwide have offered free courses to more than 2 million online learners through the platform edX. While early promises to revolutionize the classic variables of higher education, including location, access, and cost, may be confronting some skepticism, there can be little doubt that online learning is entering a new and different era.

The variable that most needs to change is also the most daunting: Higher education must reach the millions of low-income young people who traditionally have been excluded. Countries like Korea and Norway are showing gains in the inclusion of low-income youths, and it doesn't hurt that they have a much smaller percentage of them in their populations. In the U.S., access and graduation rates between low-income students and their upper-income peers continue to widen. Although this trend paints a bleak picture, there are proven initiatives in the U.S. and other countries, including College for Every Student and the Trinity College Access Programmes, that provide rays of hope.

These challenges can no longer be solved by one nation in isolation. Our economies, governments, and education systems will only become more interdependent. Global solutions rooted in communication and cooperation are vital for creating and sustaining higher education opportunities that meet the needs of a changing world.

This is why College for Every Student and Trinity College Dublin are partnering in the One Million More campaign to ensure that 1 million low-income students, most of whom would not graduate without our support, attain college degrees by 2025. We will train and support businesses, colleges, and other NGOs to support students on their path to college graduation.

Closing the college degree attainment gap is one of our biggest domestic challenges. This is a problem with profound consequences for equality and democracy. That makes it everyone’s problem, and it will take all of us, working together, to solve it. One student at a time.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College for Every Student. To learn more about the One Million More campaign, visit this link.