The lofty goal of making the United States the world leader in college-degree holders by 2020 is doable, but the reform needed to reach that goal is still in its infancy and likely to face a hard time growing up.
That's the impression left by an Education Sector-led panel discussion - "A New Era in Higher Education Reform? - held Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Held at George Washington University - one of the priciest colleges in the nation - a chorus of heavy hitters in higher education spoke of the need for colleges and universities to drive down costs for the common student.
They also said institutions of higher learning need to become more innovative and diverse in the ways they award credentials and degrees, and concentrate on getting students actuallyto finish college and not just enroll them to fill school coffers.
Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, an independent policy think tank, said the rising cost of college tuition is the biggest barrier to the United States attaining world leadership in the proportion of college-degree holders - a key initiative of the Obama Administration.
"This is one of those things like death and taxes," Carey told an audience of several hundred.
"You can count on college tuition getting higher every year. If we don't do something to stop that trend ... the new students we need to enter the higher education system" won't be able to enter or complete college, Carey said, invoking the findings of a newly released book titled Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities.
His message was echoed by U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Education Robert Shireman, who said colleges as well as workforce development programs need to "shift their thinking" from merely getting students enrolled to helping students actually complete their programs. Others said that approach is often at odds with the interests of universities and faculty who are more focused on research and reputation.
Shireman said the administration is trying to persuade colleges to focus on graduation by distributing federal Perkins grants for vocational and technical education based on completion rates and how well colleges keep down costs.
Shireman also called for a "wider array of ways to get people into the current economy and the economy of the future," which could include creating one- and three-year programs instead of relegating students to two- and four-year colleges.
"In terms of challenges, (the challenges) will be resistance to being creative and thinking about doing things differently," Shireman said.
"We talk a fairly good game but in reality most of higher education's interests don't align with this access question," conceded panelist Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. He said most college faculty are concerned only about teaching their subjects and doing research in their disciplines, not helping students graduate. University officials have also become obsessed with infrastructure, he said.
"I think our colleagues in the two-year system do care because they've been hemmed in by demands shaping their mission," LeBlanc said. "But most of higher education has cared about building great buildings, climbing walls and food courts."
Panelist Paul Glastris, editor of Washington Monthly magazine, spoke of the magazine's newly published college guide as a potential catalyst for influencing how colleges are funded. Among other things, the guide examines how successful colleges are at graduating low-income students - which the magazine calls "social mobility."
"We don't attempt to be a guide to the average student on where to go school," Glastris said. "What we're attempting to do is say to policy makers and citizens where should you pay your tax dollars."
Colleges face perception problems with respect to their costs, Glastris said.
"If a college today cuts its price, it sends a signal of inferiority," Glastris said, explaining that without effective measures of quality, a school's price becomes an indicator of its effectiveness.
If colleges were to spring up and say, "We're not Harvard. But we can get you an education that is close to Harvard at a third of the price," he said, "that would be a revolution in higher education, both in terms of access and affordability."
The lone naysayer in the group was Ben Wildavsky, senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
"The goal is not going to be met," Wildavsky said of the administration's goal of leading the world in percentage of college graduates. "It's in the grand tradition of aspirational goals and no one expects it to be met. That does not mean it's a bad goal."
He said the goal was unlikely to be met because 2020 is only 11 years off and "I don't think the system changes that fast."
He also questioned the goal's premise.
"It's not enough for us to succeed. Others must fail? " Wildavsky asked rhetorically, questioning the notion that the United States not only needed to be better but better than everyone else. "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone succeeded?"