It is truly alarming to see that the number of college graduates in this country is dropping, yet the level of college debt carried by U.S. residents is increasing.
A recent Wall Street Journal article said 1.8 million people borrowed money to pay for college and were due to start paying it back in 2005. Of that number, though, only 42 percent had actually earned a degree. Taking that to another level, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that 34 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college credits, but have not received a diploma. That's a rate that has grown by roughly 700,000 people over the past three years.
These are troubling statistics, especially when you consider that 8.7 percent of Georgians find themselves unemployed and an even greater percentage find themselves underemployed. This trend is not expected to change. Over the next few years, 75 percent of all jobs will require some credential beyond a high school degree.
In a robust effort to meet such challenges, the state of Georgia, led by Gov. Nathan Deal and the University of System of Georgia, are embarking on a new initiative called Complete College Georgia. The ambitious goal of this agenda is to add 250,000 postsecondary graduates to the state's work force by the year 2020. According to Lynne Weisenbach, the USG vice chancellor who's heading up Complete College Georgia, such an effort "will have a positive affect on college affordability by shortening time to degree, lessening the likelihood a student may temporarily stop taking classes, and providing options so students may attend school while working, serving their country, or raising a family."
Why is such an initiative so important? In order for our community and state to remain economically competitive, we need to produce more college graduates while expanding opportunities to underserved populations like immigrants, minorities, women, low income families, and children of parents who did earn a degree. To be clear, we are not saying that everyone needs to have a 4-year degree. Complete College Georgia is looking for people to earn post-secondary degrees, which include certificates, associate degrees and/or bachelor's.
To meet these goals, institutions of higher learning must adopt to an ever-changing population of non-traditional students. Just a quarter of undergraduates on most campuses are "traditional" students, defined as full-time students on a four-year residential campus.
Increasingly, the students who fill American campuses attend school part-time, work long hours, commute to school. Many of them are older and have families of their own, and they are worried about their finances. To meet the needs of these non-traditional students, institutions in the Technical College System of Georgia and the University System of Georgia are forging stronger partnerships. Columbus State, among others, is rethinking the traditional model of awarding credits and looking for ways to serve different populations with different degree options. For example, Columbus State University is looking at a "competency-based" approach for 2013 where students might earn college credit for demonstrating significant knowledge that meets the learning objectives of a competency-based course, a step typically fulfilled only by a class on a transcript. This is just one piece of a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William Flora Hewlett Foundation to the University System of Georgia and Columbus State to start a new online Bachelor of Arts degree in communication with a civic leadership track that could be completed in three years.
CSU, like many colleges, is adapting slowly to this changing population. The Complete College Georgia initiative is a positive step in the right direction as our educational and political leaders recognize that in order for our state to produce more college graduates, from non-traditional backgrounds, our efforts must focus on delivering a high-quality, low-cost, flexible education that allows students to complete their degrees in a timely manner.
Gregory Domin, associate provost for graduate education, distance learning, and international affairs, Columbus State University.