Current generation may be first in U.S. history less educated than its predecessors

Published: Saturday, Feb. 12 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Shutterstock.com photo illustration by Josh Ferrin, Deseret News

photo illustration, joshferrin, deseret news

SALT LAKE CITY — Trapper Roderick began college in the fall of 2007. He fell behind in classes after his freshman year and decided to take a break.

Last semester, he enrolled at Utah Valley University, but he could only get into one class and decided it wasn't worth the money.

Finally, this semester, the 22-year-old enrolled at the University of Utah, with hopes to apply for the architecture program in the spring, or in another year. That means that nearly four years after he started his freshman year, he's at least four years away from graduation day.

Roderick's story is not unique. In fact, it's illustrative of a problem the higher education system is facing across the country. While 75 percent of high school graduates start college within two years of graduation, only half of these students complete a degree. For the Hispanic population, the fastest growing demographic in the state, the numbers are even worse: Of every 100 Hispanic high school students in Utah, only four graduate from college.

Public college systems, from Texas to Arizona to California and Maryland, are all having to do more with less. They are dealing with a larger population of students than ever before, at a time in which budgets for higher education are being slashed across the country.

They are also serving a different type of student than a decade ago.

With more students attempting college, many aren't as prepared for the rigors of college life. Sixty percent of students attending community college need to take remedial classes before starting on their degree, said Tom Sugar, with Complete College America, an organization that hopes to encourage states to improve college graduation rates. And because college has become more expensive, a majority of students are also working while going to school, meaning it often takes them longer to get through school. And the longer it takes to obtain a degree, studies show, the less likely students are to make it to graduation day.

"Students' lives are becoming increasingly complicated and for the most part institutions are not changing to meet the need of this new customer," Sugar said.

This comes at a time when a college degree is becoming a must-have in an increasingly competitive global economy, where those without advanced degrees are often left behind.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America is 13th in the world in percentage of adults who have completed an associate's degree or higher. Currently just 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a higher degree.

"Unless things change dramatically and quickly, this will be the first generation in our history that will be less educated than their predecessors," Sugar said.

In the next 10 years, 63 percent of new jobs in the U.S. will require some sort of higher degree or meaningful certificate, according to a 2010 study released by Georgetown University. In Utah, 66 percent of new jobs will require a higher degree.

Currently just 39 percent of Utah adults aged 25 to 64 have an associate's degree or higher. Over the last two decades, Utah has in fact dropped from being one of the top states in percentage of adults with college degrees to now being five percent below the national average in the number of residents who hold at least a bachelor degree.

That decline can be attributed largely to Utah's changing demographics over the last two decades, says University of Utah researcher Pam Perlich. The Latino population in Utah is less likely to graduate from high school and those who do are less likely to graduate from college, Perlich said.

"We have a high dropout rate of ethnic minorities," Perlich said. "The achievement gap between the minority and majority population is larger in Utah, and we haven't made much progress there."

A rising university

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