U.S. prosperity depends on success of “left-behind”

Colleges and universities must do better job educating first-generation and at-risk students
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 28, 2016

The purpose of a college education is to give students the wherewithal to thrive in the future. We know that certain skills can quickly become obsolete.

We also know, as former President Bill Clinton said, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”

For this future, we know that students who think critically and articulate ideas effectively, and who are quantitatively astute and intellectually curious, will have a better chance at success. That is precisely what a first-rate liberal arts education provides.

Preparing the workforce

Among the biggest challenges facing American higher education today is our failure to provide the majority of tomorrow’s workforce with the education that will give them these skills. According to a study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of jobs nationwide will require postsecondary education by 2020.

In 27 states and the District of Columbia the requirements will be higher. Nearly across the board, states currently have average attainment levels below those required for the jobs of the future.

Closing that gap requires unprecedented success educating students who have been “left behind”—including at-risk students, first-generation Americans, families with incomes in the two lowest socioeconomic quartiles, and Hispanic and black students.

Demographic breakdown

The year 2014 was a watershed in that it was the first time public schools in America became majority minority, with 49.7 percent white enrollees and 50.3 percent black, Hispanic or Asian Pacific Islanders. That compares to 63.4 percent and 36.6 percent, respectively, in 1997, and a projection of 45.3 percent and 54.7 percent in 2020.

Higher education overall has not done well with the populations of students whose numbers are increasing. The emphasis upon selectivity, rejection rates and U.S. News and World Report rankings combined with the ever-increasing costs have favored those in the top socio-economic quartiles.

Between 1970 and 2015, the percentage of 24-year-olds in the top socioeconomic quartile who attained college degrees soared from 40 percent to 77 percent, while those in the bottom quartile barely moved, from 6 percent to 9 percent.

The Education Advisory Board has found that students whose first-year GPA is between 2.0 and 3.0 are far less likely to finish than those who are a 3.0 and above. In fact, the former have only a 50-50 chance of graduation.

Typically, these students suffer from benign neglect because they are in “good academic standing” but not the honors students who are provided additional advising and attention.

Facing reality

These numbers don’t square with the cherished ideal of America as the exemplar of upward mobility. While justice would require developing policies and taking actions to ensure mobility for all students, it’s also a practical consideration. Our future as a dynamic nation and a world power depends on it.

The students who are now in the left behind categories are the rank and file of the workforce of tomorrow. They will be our health care providers, cultural and civic leaders, entrepreneurs, business executives and so much more.

Between 2012 and 2020, for every 100 new jobs, 28 will be Hispanic, 10 black and 24 Asian. Only three will be white. We must make it the highest of our priorities to find new ways to succeed with the students we now leave behind. Fortunately much good work is being done. More is needed.

Sue Henderson is president of New Jersey City University. James Muyskens is a professor in the Graduate Center at City University of New York.