June 7, 2012

William E. Kirwan has served as the chancellor of the University System of Maryland since 2002.

In a recent op-ed column headlined “The failure of college for all” [May 28], Robert J. Samuelson raised some interesting ideas, such as enhanced vocational education and expanded apprenticeship programs. However, he started from what higher education professionals would label a false premise, rendering his observations and arguments less valuable.

Although I have no doubt that some people have issued calls for universal access to higher education, those who are serious about education policy have never proposed anything remotely close to 100 percent college attendance or college completion.

As an example, take President Obama’s goal that by 2020 the United States is to “have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” which would fall between 55 and 60 percent. Or the effort led by the College Board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, which I chaired, with a goal of at least 55 percent of young Americans earning a college degree by 2025.

Closer to home, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the Maryland General Assembly and the University System of Maryland have embraced the goal of having 55 percent of Maryland residents age 25 and older holding a two- or four-year degree by 2025. You will note that none of these efforts represents anything close to “college for all.”

Should every kid go to college? No. But should all kids who want to go to college and are capable of handling college-level work have the opportunity to do so? I believe they should. So although calls to enact universal college for all are misguided (and essentially nonexistent), calls to significantly increase college completion — by enhancing readiness, access, affordability and retention — are correct and should be heeded.

Consider that three decades ago, about 41 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 held a two- or four-year degree, which led the world at the time. Today’s 25- to 34-year-olds are at about that same rate . But in today’s innovation-centered, globally connected world, 41 percent places the United States 14th among industrialized nations. We have made no progress in college attainment in a generation, while nation after nation has improved dramatically. How can the United States remain the world leader in things that matter if we aren’t the leader in educating our citizens?

Or consider that last month’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed unemployment rates for high school graduates with no college to be twice as high as those for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. And according to a recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, people with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $1 million more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.

Looking at Maryland, economists tell us that by 2020, 60 percent of jobs in the state will require at least a two- or four-year degree. At present, only 44 percent of Maryland adults ages 25-64 have a postsecondary degree. Maryland is not generating a sufficient number of graduates — particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to adequately support growth. The ability of the state and our nation to compete in the innovation economy — and our position of global economic leadership — is directly linked to the education of our citizens.

Finally, consider the challenges we must confront beyond our economic recovery and prosperity as the century progresses: addressing global climate change, developing alternative energy sources, advancing lifesaving medical research. All of these challenges — and many others — will require a highly educated populace if America is to continue to lead the way.

There simply can be no argument that we must improve educational attainment if the United States wants to be the world’s leader in creativity and innovation and the leader of the knowledge economy. It is also a social-equity issue, given the income disparities between college graduates and those without postsecondary degrees.

It is true that a “college-for-all” strategy would be ineffective and ultimately counterproductive. But a strategy that mirrors what Maryland is doing — generating more high school graduates who are prepared for the rigors of college, keeping college affordable, helping students stay in college year-to-year (especially first-generation college students) and increasing our college completion rate to 55 percent — not only would be productive, it is also essential.