The 2008 National Report Card: Modest Improvements, Persistent Disparities, Eroding Global Competitiveness

By Patrick M. Callan
President, The National Center

Pat CallanMeasuring Up 2008 is the most recent in the series of national and state-by-state report cards for higher education that was inaugurated in 2000. The key findings this year reveal that the nation and most of the 50 states are making some advances in preparing students for college and providing them with access to higher education. However, other nations are advancing more quickly than the United States; we continue to slip behind other countries in improving college opportunities for our residents. In addition, large disparities in higher education performance by race/ethnicity, by income, and by state limit our nation’s ability to advance the educational attainment of our workforce and citizenry—and thereby remain competitive globally.

College Preparation

Young Americans who graduate from high school on time are now more likely to take courses that prepare them for college and to enroll in college, compared with earlier this decade or in the 1990s. But far too many graduates leave high school unprepared to succeed in college-level courses and need remediation when they enroll. In addition, larger proportions than in the past fail to graduate from high school; some eventually receive alternative high school certification, principally the GED, but they do not enroll in college in large numbers. The reduced high school graduation rate decreases the pool of potential college graduates and college-educated workers.

Access to College

The likelihood that a high school freshman will enroll in college by age 19 has improved modestly in this decade, from 39% to 42%, and the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college has grown even more modestly. Meanwhile, the enrollment of working-age adults in college-level education or training has been declining since the early 1990s. Overall, the Measuring Up indicators show that access to college is fairly flat in the United States, with mostly small improvements in some states and declines in others.

College Graduation

For students who enroll in college, rates of completion of certificate, associate, and baccalaureate programs are poor and have improved only slightly. These low college completion rates—as with the declining rates of high school completion—are depriving the nation of college-educated and trained workers needed to keep the American workforce competitive globally.

International Comparisons

The United States’ world leadership in college access has eroded steadily, as reflected in the international comparisons of the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college (see Figure 1). In college completion, which has never been a strength of American higher education, the U.S. ranks 15th among 29 countries compared (see Figure 2). The U.S. adult population ages 35 and older still ranks among the world leaders in the percentage who have college degrees—reflecting the educational progress of earlier times (see Figure 3). Among 25- to 34-year-olds, however, the U.S. population has slipped to 10th in the percentage who have an associate degree or higher (see Figure 4). This relative erosion of our national “educational capital” reflects the lack of significant improvement in the rates of college participation and completion in recent years.

These cross-national comparisons place the nation’s higher education performance in a global context and reflect the gaps that have opened between the United States and other nations. These disparities undermine our national value of individual opportunity and our collective capacity to succeed in the knowledge-based global economy. Addressing these disparities is critical because:

  • Education and training beyond high school is a prerequisite for employment that supports a middle-class life. This is a reality for most Americans.
  • Seventy-eight million Americans are reaching or approaching retirement age, and this is the best-educated generation in the United States—both currently and historically.
  • As the nation’s demography changes, large proportions of the younger generations are among those who are least well-served by the U.S. system of education currently: those whose educational opportunity and attainment reflect the disadvantages of race, income, and geography.

Persistent Disparities

To make significant headway in increasing the educational attainment of its population and thereby its comparative standing internationally, the United States must address disparities in educational opportunity and achievement among Americans. These persistent gaps must be closed if the United States is to meet its workforce needs and compete globally.

First, the high school graduation rate (the percentage of ninth graders who complete a standard high school diploma in four years) has decreased for all racial and ethnic groups over the past three decades, and differences between racial and ethnic groups persist. By the middle of this decade:

  • the national on-time high school graduation rate was 77.5%,
  • the rate for African Americans was 69.1%, and
  • the rate for Hispanics was 72.3%.1

Meanwhile, a growing number of high school students are taking longer to complete or are leaving high school without a standard diploma; some who drop out earn GEDs but are less likely to enroll in any form of postsecondary education and those who do enroll are less likely to complete a certificate or degree.

In addition, disparities in college access are closely linked to race/ethnicity and income. While college attendance has increased for all groups over the past three decades, gaps in enrollment among racial/ethnic groups have not diminished. For high school graduates, 73% of whites, 56% of blacks, and 58% of Hispanics enroll in college the next fall.2 In terms of family income, 91% of high school students from families in the highest income group (family income of $100,001 or more) enroll in college. The enrollment rate for students from middle-income families (family income between $50,001 to $100,000) is 78% and for those in the lowest income group (family income between $0 and $20,000) the rate is 52%.3

The racial and ethnic disparities that exist in preparation for and access to college are also found in college completion rates. For example, 59% of white students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in college. In contrast, 47% of Hispanic students, 40% of African Americans, and 39% of Native American students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Finally, the state-by-state variation in educational performance represents another source of disparity and inequity for Americans. As reflected in the Measuring Up state report cards and grades, the likelihood of graduating from high school prepared for higher education, enrolling in college, and graduating from an affordable college or university differs enormously by state of residence. Here are some examples:

  • High school freshmen in California, compared with their peers in Massachusetts, are 17% less likely to enroll in college by age 19. High school freshmen in Pennsylvania are 12% less likely to enroll than those in South Carolina or Utah.
  • Half of young adults (ages 18 to 24) are enrolled in college in Rhode Island, while only 18% are in Alaska. Young adults are 15% more likely to be enrolled in college in Iowa than in Georgia, and 11% more likely to be enrolled in Massachusetts than in Texas.  

Given our relative decline internationally and the gaps in higher education performance within our borders, no state can afford to maintain the status quo. As Measuring Up 2008 reveals, even the best-performing states have gaps in performance they need to—and can—address. Narrowing those gaps will improve educational and economic opportunity in those states and for the nation as a whole.

Dimensions of the National Deterioration of College Affordability

The deterioration of college affordability throughout the United States has contributed to the disparities in higher education opportunity and attainment. There are several dimensions to this national and state problem.

First, college tuition continues to outpace family income and the price of other necessities, such as medical care, food, and housing (see Figure 5). Whatever the causes of these tuition increases, the continuation of trends of the last quarter century would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll.

Second, the erosion of college affordability has been exacerbated not only by increased tuition, but also by relatively flat or declining family incomes. As a result of these trends, the financial burden of paying for college costs has increased substantially, particularly for low- and middle-income families, even when scholarships and grants are taken into account (see Table 1).

Third, students who do enroll in college are taking on more debt to maintain their college access. More students are borrowing (see Figure 6), and they are borrowing more. Over the last decade, student borrowing has more than doubled (see Figure 7).

Another dimension of the problem of college affordability involves the financial aid priorities of colleges and universities, which are not in synch with public policy priorities. Currently, students from middle- and upper-income families receive larger grants from colleges and universities than students from low-income families receive (see Table 2).


Measuring Up 2008 identifies clearly the key areas of improvement and decline in higher education performance in the United States. States have made some modest advances, but these improvements are overshadowed by larger gains by other countries, and by the deterioration of college affordability throughout the United States. The relative erosion of our national “educational capital” has occurred at a time when we need more people to be college educated and trained because of Baby Boomer retirements and rising skill requirements for new and existing jobs.

Meanwhile, states are grappling with substantial budget shortfalls. In this fiscal cycle, state leaders face a crucial choice in determining state policy for higher education. They can respond to their current budget crises in the usual patterns of the past, by allowing tuition and student aid policy to play second fiddle to institutional finance. States that select this course will most likely see precipitous tuition increases, cuts in student financial aid, and drops in college access. Further, if states take this path in being passive and complicit in allowing the brunt of the financial distress to be passed to students and families, then our national and state gaps in college access and completion will worsen, and college affordability will continue to deteriorate.

But states have another option: to establish state policies for tuition and student aid that balance the financial burden for higher education among states, the institutions of higher education, and students and families. This is both a short- and long-term strategy that makes state policy more transparent, grounds it in the needs and financial circumstances of state residents, establishes college affordability as a priority, protects educational opportunity, and in the process helps to meet the needs of states and the nation for a well-educated workforce and citizenry.

1. James J. Heckman and Paul A. LaFontaine, “The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels,” Institute for the Study of Labor, IZA Discussion Paper Series, No. 3216 (December 2007).

2. National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), “Education Longitudinal Study of 2002,” Digest of Education Statistics 2007 (Washington, D.C.: March 25, 2008).

3. NCES, “Education Longitudinal Study of 2002” (Washington, D.C.: October 2007), Table 6.