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In the Nation's Interest

CED’s Petro Speaks on Boosting Postsecondary Education Performance

National student loan debt now clocks in at a staggering $1.2 trillion. Just four in ten Americans possess a college degree. To boot, a third of college graduates aren’t ready for the workforce, says the business community.

It’s unequivocally clear: once the envy of the world, America’s higher education system isn’t up to par on several fronts.

To that end, the Committee for Economic Development’s Executive Vice President, Mike Petro, spoke on the consequences of, and solutions to, these postsecondary challenges at a forum last night by the Education Exchange. Founded over three decades ago, this Rhode Island-based organization has helped more than 20,000 adults increase their educational levels, gain access to workplace opportunities, and enhance their economic security.

Despite the rise of cost-saving innovations like online learning, Petro pointed out that the postsecondary price tag continues to escalate - and at a rate far steeper than other goods and services. 

He went on to describe how the exorbitant cost of college is impacting access, resulting in lost opportunities for both individuals and the nation at large. It turns out that by 2020, the amount of jobs requiring postsecondary credentials is estimated to reach 65%. But as he pointed out, the U.S. is far behind its international competitors in degree attainment.

Petro concluded with some solutions to help improve three principal challenges of higher education: cost, quality, and access. Working-age students are increasingly turning to competency-based education (which must be adopted by more institutions) because they are likely to be most interested in short-term postsecondary programs that offer credentials with immediate value in the labor market. Under competency-based education, students’ progress and completion are based on each student’s demonstrated mastery of skills and knowledge, rather than seat-time and credit hours. 

Additionally, more-innovative programs must be adopted by broad-access institutions – the community colleges and less-selective state schools that educate roughly half of students in postsecondary institutions. For example, Southern New Hampshire University offers a three-year honors program in business. This program contains the same number of credits as a traditional four-year degree but is specifically designed to be accomplished in three years, without night or weekend classes. The accelerated time frame of the degree means that students save a year of tuition and associated costs, which are up to $40,000.

He stressed that improving higher education is an undertaking that the education community by no means can assume alone. Business can – and must – be part of the solution.

Petro discussed a few educational initiatives spearheaded by corporations, including Starbucks. The coffee giant recently began a partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) to help provide a college education to its employees. Employees who work a minimum of 20 hours a week can enroll in dozens of online programs offered by ASU for a discounted price, with no requirement to stay with Starbucks upon completion. Freshman and sophomore employees are offered a reduced tuition rate, while juniors and seniors are compensated by Starbucks for any costs not covered by federal aid, once 21 credits have been reached.

You can view the presentation here

For more information on CED's work in postsecondary education, visit