America Now Has a ‘College Economy,’ Needs to Focus on Higher Education
Building a strong middle class and rejuvenating the economy begins with increasing the number of Americans with some form of higher education, experts on a Lumina Foundation panel in Charlotte this week agreed.
The panel, called “The College Advantage” and attended by a handful of delegates to the Democratic National Convention, focused on Lumina’s goal of increasing the number of degree-holding Americans to 60 percent by 2025. President Obama’s administration has set a similar goal, but with hopes of reaching it by 2020.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said reaching such a goal would have significant economic impacts for the country. His estimates indicate that such an accomplishment could increase annual GDP by as much as $500 billion.
But panelists were quick to note that increasing degrees is a result of an evolved economy.
“The economy we knew before the recession is not coming back,” Carnevale said, noting that a high school degree was, relatively recently, enough for many Americans to have access to the middle class. “In the extent that we keep looking for those jobs, we’re looking in the rear view mirror.”
Today, more jobs are requiring some form of degree or other credential beyond a high school diploma. While a majority of the middle class in the 1980s had only completed college, today that figure is around 40 percent.
Therefore, “higher education means everything,” when working toward economic recovery, said Charlie Helms, former chancellor of North Carolina Central University. Helms also stressed, during a discussion about rising and burdensome loan debt, that higher education can be a smart investment for many.
“I reject the notion that loans are all bad,” he said. “Some are really good … when you invest in yourself and have a high return.”
Fellow panelist Aaron Smith, the executive director of Young Invincibles, said information is key to dealing with the more than $1 trillion in student loan debt. That includes ensuring Americans know about income-based repayment and loan forgiveness.
Mick Fleming, president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, said intentional communication between the business and higher education worlds can help Americans know what is—and what isn’t—a smart investment.
“The business community has to be the demanding customer but should also give clarity on what they want [students to learn],” he said.
Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis said they’re engaging with people at the political conventions this year to advance the discussion.
“We need to use the energy at these conventions to help build awareness about the goal and that the president will need to deal with higher education,” Merisotis said. “It’s an American agenda and it’s an agenda that needs to be fulfilled by the president, the Congress, and the other leaders of our country.”
Brian Stewart is the communications manager at Campus Progress.