President Barack Obama spoke in 2009 at Macomb Community College, near Detroit, as he proposed boosting the number of college graduates in the United States. (Paul Sancya/AP)

When President Barack Obama stood before a friendly and enthusiastic crowd at Macomb Community College near Detroit 10 years ago, the goals he set out were historic.

Within a decade, he said on that day in 2009, community colleges such as Macomb would collectively boost their number of graduates by 5 million. That would help return the United States to first in the world in the proportion of its population with the credentials needed to sustain an economy increasingly dependent on highly educated workers.

“Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result,” Obama said in announcing his American Graduation Initiative.

Now it’s 2019, and after federal and state budget cuts, spiraling tuition, political distraction and increasing public skepticism about the value of a higher education, the nation is far behind schedule in realizing that goal.

Obama called for raising to 60 percent the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees or certificates by next year; that number has instead crawled from about 39 percent to just under 48 percent. At that rate, the target won’t be met until at least 2041, the research arm of the nonprofit Educational Testing Service predicts.

It will take until at least 2056 for 60 percent of all working-age Americans — not just 25- to 34-year-olds — to have college educations of some kind, the Educational Testing Service calculates. That’s the separate goal set out by the Lumina Foundation to achieve by 2025.

And the United States remains stubbornly in 13th place globally in the proportion of its 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway and other countries.

The repercussions could be as enormous as they have been overlooked, said Ted Mitchell, who was Obama’s undersecretary of education overseeing higher education.

“The polar ice cap we’re seeing melting in higher education is right in front of us,” said Mitchell, president of the largest national association of colleges and universities, the American Council on Education. He compared the situation to the slow-moving effects of changes in environmental policies.

“The real downside comes in 10 years or 20 years, when this incredible human capital engine that has fueled our economy over the last century starts to sputter,” he said.

It might not even take that long. Forty-six percent of American employers already can’t find the workers they need, according to ManpowerGroup. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that is keeping 40 percent of businesses from taking on more work.

The Trump administration’s Education Department did not respond to requests to discuss this topic, and references to the American Graduation Initiative have been deleted from the White House website.

To produce more graduates, colleges first need students. But the number of students on the path to degrees is not up. It’s down.

Community colleges, which were the focus of the American Graduation Initiative, have in the past 10 years lost nearly 20 percent of their enrollment, the Education Department reports. At Macomb Community College, Obama’s backdrop for his announcement, the number of students has fallen more than 10 percent, state and college figures show.

Higher education institutions of all kinds have 2 million fewer students than in 2009.

That’s partly because the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who represent traditional college students is declining, even as an improving economy has drawn more people straight into the job market, without stopping to get degrees.

But federal and state budget cuts for higher education also haven’t matched the aspirations of ambitious targets like Obama’s: Most of the $12 billion he promised to help community colleges fell through, and states are spending an inflation-adjusted $7 billion less on public universities and colleges than in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. That’s a cut of 16 percent, on average, pushing up tuition faster than family incomes and fueling public skepticism about whether college is worth the cost.

Progress toward the college graduation objectives varies by region. Forty-two states have their own goals, and some are on track to reach them, or report that they’re ahead of schedule. Tennessee, which famously made its community colleges free, is on target to have 55 percent of residents possess certificates or degrees two years ahead of the 2025 deadline, outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said in his final State of the State address.

“Why haven’t other states had the same growth?” Haslam asked. “Every other state has compromised on core principles that prove to make a difference.”

A record number of Virginians earned bachelor’s degrees in 2017, the most recent year for which the figures are available; officials said that puts it on course toward having the highest proportion of college-educated workers in the nation by 2030.

Other states are behind, and some have pushed back their target dates for raising their proportion of degree-holders. Even while publicly raising alarms about a shortage of skilled workers, all but four — California, Hawaii, North Dakota and Wyoming — have simultaneously cut their higher education budgets.

Iowa is a case study of why so many places are falling behind. Though the state estimates that 68 percent of jobs will require college educations by 2025, only 48 percent of Iowans have one; reaching the state’s goal of boosting the total to 70 percent will require pushing 150,000 more students a year to and through college. But college enrollment in Iowa is falling, not rising, and is down over the past decade by 100,000 students.

Even as they’ve fretted over having workers with the skills employers need, politicians in Iowa have cut funding for higher education by an inflation-adjusted $2,528 per student in the past 10 years, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. Public universities and colleges there have raised tuition 19 percent during that time, while spending on state scholarships and grants has fallen every year since 2014.

Black and Hispanic students make up the fastest-growing proportion of Iowa primary and secondary school students, up from 13 percent in 2005 to 21 percent today.

But black and Hispanic students nationwide are not going to or graduating from college at levels needed for states like Iowa or the nation to meet their goals, the nonprofit advocacy group the Education Trust reports. The proportion with degrees has barely budged since 2012, from 28 percent to 30 percent for black Americans and 20 percent to 22 percent for Hispanics, compared with more than 46 percent for whites.

“You can have a target to increase college-going overall, but without black and Hispanic students, you’re not going to meet” it, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

Most states also can’t meet their degree goals without luring back to campus some of the 35 million people over age 25 the Census Bureau says began but never finished college. Many states have launched marketing campaigns encouraging older adults to re-enroll. But their numbers, too, are plummeting.

Former students can be hard to track down and have jobs and families that make it tough for them to find the time and money to go back to college. And they often aren’t eligible for financial aid. Meanwhile, few institutions offer classes or open offices at nights or on weekends, when working adults can attend. Schools have also been eliminating child care, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

But there are signs of progress.

Those students who do go to college are graduating at slightly higher rates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Fifty-eight percent who started at two- or four-year schools in 2012 had finished six years later. That’s the highest level in the six years the Clearinghouse has tracked it. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic students who enroll in college are also up.

After years of stagnation or decline, the proportion of low-
income students being enrolled by elite universities is also up slightly
, the nonprofit American Talent Initiative says.

There’s increasing disagreement over whether Americans necessarily need college degrees to get highly paid work, or can opt for other kinds of education such as training in coding or skilled trades. If certificates and occupational licenses are included — needed for jobs such as welding and plumbing — the proportion of Americans with educations beyond high school rises to 58 percent, the Education Department says.

More than just “credentials for credentials’ sake,” employers want prospective workers with skills that don’t always require a conventional degree, said Cheryl Oldham, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of education policy and former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the George W. Bush administration.

Those gaps also could be filled by on-the-job training, apprenticeships and other innovations, said Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, which has made the cause of increasing the proportion of the population with certificates or degrees a central purpose. (Lumina is a funder of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

“We do higher ed over here and then we do workforce stuff over there and maybe there’s another bucket that’s technology stuff,” he said. “Policymakers aren’t seeing all of this as part of the same set of solutions to try to get the country to a higher level of talent.”

This story about the skills gap was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.