A lack of highly skilled workers leaves American employers unable to fill jobs.
In July 2009, President Barack Obama announced an ambitious plan to boost employment by 2019. The U.S. was coming out of one of the worst recessions in its history, and Obama was both hopeful and solemn. He made his announcement at a community college in Michigan.
"Some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back," Obama said. "They're the casualties of a changing economy."
It was a "transformative moment," Obama said. "And in this moment, we must do what other generations have done."
Obama said other generations had invested in education when unemployment was high and industries were changing, and it was time to do the same. He announced the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), a plan to invest $12 billion in federal funding for community college programs and infrastructure, and he set the goal of returning the U.S. to first in the world in the proportion of the population with degrees.
In the 10 years since the AGI was announced, it's been chipped away at. In order to get the Affordable Care Act passed, Obama had to do away with $10 billion from the AGI. That money would have gone to community colleges for all sorts of projects, from new and renovated buildings to developing new academic programs, providing up-to-date technology and hiring more full-time faculty members. Instead, grants worth just $2 billion dollars collectively were distributed to community colleges nationwide for job training in fields that were in high demand for workers.
Jon Marcus, higher education editor at The Hechinger Report, looked back at the proportion of graduates in the U.S. that Obama had pledged to reach by 2019.
"We are way, way behind on reaching these goals Obama set," Marcus says.
Obama said that by 2019, 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 would have a college degree. Marcus reports the U.S. has improved a bit, but still only 48 percent of that segment of the population has degrees. That number won't reach 60 percent until 2041, according to predictions by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit educational testing company that administers the GRE among other tests.
Today, the U.S. is 13th in the world in the proportion of the population with degrees, behind countries such as Canada, Russia and Lithuania.
"We compete in a world that is more and more dependent on knowledge industries, and we are falling behind now in the number of people that we have that can do those kinds of jobs," Marcus says. "We are running out of people to do the jobs that really drive the American economy."
Marcus says many states set their own goals to boost graduation as well, but have fallen behind in those goals because they continue to cut higher education budgets. Marcus reports that states are spending an inflation-adjusted $7 billion less on public universities and colleges than they did ten years ago, which means the cost just keeps getting pushed onto consumers who are already skeptical of whether going into debt is worth getting a degree.
"On the one hand they're [states] crying out for people who have college degrees," Marcus says. "On the other hand, they are spending less money on actually helping to produce those."