In his speech to Congress and the nation Tuesday night, President Barack Obama set a bold goal of retaking America’s global leadership in the number of college graduates by 2020. ...Well, it's not really a puzzle why this is happening, although Barack Obama will never, ever tell you it.
For many Americans, it may come as a surprise that their country is no longer number one in the world in college attainment, with over 14 million undergraduates enrolled in higher education institutions in 2008 alone. But just because students enroll in college doesn’t necessarily mean they finish and attain a degree.
Some insight into this puzzle can be provided by digging a bit deeper into the president’s startling statistic that only 50 percent of undergraduates actually finish their degrees. While the proportion of individuals enrolled in college in the United States has grown since the 1970s, the proportion of students receiving diplomas has declined during the same period. Currently less than 60 percent of students entering four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree, and barely one-fourth of community college students complete any degree within six years. As a result, the United States now ranks 10th in college attainment for its 25- to 34-year-old population, down from third in 1991, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
But, here’s a reform for making some degree of ”college attainment” more feasible, one that I’ve never seen suggested before:
Why shouldn’t four year colleges give out two year Associates of Arts degrees?
For example, say you graduate from a Los Angeles public high school with a C+ GPA, and you average 450 on the SAT test. You could go to LA Valley Community College and get an AA degree after two years and then, if you are so inclined, transfer to a four year institution to pursue a bachelor's. But everybody tells you that a four-year college is much more prestigious, so you decide to enroll at Cal State Northridge. Over the next six years, you finish three years worth of classes, but you are really stumped by a couple of required classes that you’ve failed twice, and now you are 24 and your girlfriend is pregnant and wants you to work full time, and so you drop out.
And thus you will go through life as a mere high school graduate, whereas if you had gone to community college out of high school instead of to a fancier Cal State, you’d at least have an AA degree to your name.
So, why not have four year colleges award AA degrees as well as BA degrees? Why shouldn't this guy have an AA degree from Cal State Northridge?
Similarly, as I've proposed before, high schools could award Associate high school degrees to those who complete the requirements through tenth grade, which would give the low end kids a plausible goal to keep them motivated into sticking with school through tenth grade, and provide future employers with a way to distinguish the dumb but okay kids from the real losers.