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Transform Higher Education… Now (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.

The United States of America has a proud history of excellence in postsecondary education. International rankings routinely show higher education in America as the pinnacle of global academia. As an example, the latest rankings by US News and World Report (2018 Best Global Universities Rankings) place 8 of the best universities in the world in America, with two British universities (Oxford and Cambridge at 5 and 7, respectively) rounding out the top 10.

As a result of this perceived level of excellence, the names of undergraduate colleges and top business schools are household names—global brands that serve as the yardstick that global competitors emulate.

However, more granular data about America’s ability to provide postsecondary education for its population tells a very different story than the one suggested by the global Top 10 lists. In short, I believe we have lulled ourselves into the belief that, while the system of higher education can be improved – especially when it comes to affordability – it is generally providing the path to the American Dream for most. In reality, I will argue that the house is on fire and that we as a society are standing by or working on small-scale initiatives when we all should be moving with the urgency of first responders.

In the latest OECD analysis of the educational attainment levels for 25-34 year olds (2016 OECD Education in a Glance), the United States has dropped out of the top 10 in terms of the share of the populace that has completed higher education:

  • #12 for at least a 2-year degree (associate’s degree level)
  • #18 for at least a 4-year degree (bachelor’s degree level)
  • #26 for at least a 6-year degree (master’s degree level)

Similarly, in the 2014 analysis of educational attainment across working age adults (25-64), the U.S. ranks #7—so more respectable? No. The average ranking hides that the USA is #4 for adults 55-64 and again out of the top 10 for 25-34 year olds, coming in at #12. We are simply getting worse, while others are getting better.

An integral part of inclusive economic development is for a country or region to have a highly educated population. In that context, the steadily declining share of the population with postsecondary credentials in the United States is an alarming problem of national proportions. Despite once leading the world, our nation is now in the middle of the pack—and dropping in the rankings.

Furthermore, these numbers do not even begin to reveal the ways in which the current system creates a gulf in educational attainment outcomes between the population as a whole and African-Americans and Hispanics. In the latest report on educational attainment by the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of African-Americans with an associate degree is almost 25 percent less than the population than as a whole. For Hispanics, the share is almost 50 percent less than the population as a whole.

I believe these patterns constitute one of the most important issues of our times—both from a perspective of maintaining American leadership on a global scale and from a civil rights perspective. Except for the very elite schools that populate the global top 10 lists, the current system of higher education in America is simply failing the American population. The house is on fire.

I will write more in upcoming blog posts about how to collectively address these patterns, but I believe that transformation of the entire system of higher education, as well as most of its institutions, is needed. Everyone in higher education is always looking for the next ‘program’. What is needed instead is fundamental, comprehensive change.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.

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