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September-October 2011

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Perspectives: Reforming American Higher Education: Implications for a Vibrant Work Force and a Healthy Democracy

The forces of globalization are finally hitting American postsecondary education. For nearly three decades, since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk launched a sustained focus on our mediocre, if not failing, K-12 system, American postsecondary education has avoided the accountability spotlight. Our postsecondary policy debates have focused mostly on input problems such as access, the cost of the federal student-loan program, the value of the Pell grant, and diversity. Issues such as graduation rates, the quality of learning, and cost-effectiveness were rarely addressed: Everyone simply assumed that America had the best postsecondary education system in the world.

This is not the case anymore. At a time when postsecondary education attainment is seen as increasingly vital to the economy's future growth and productivity and the nation's global competitiveness, America no longer leads the world in the percentage of our population with college degrees. We have gone from first to ninth among developed nations in the 33-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The problem is not so much that we are falling behind as that other nations are catching up and pulling ahead.

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