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The Future of College

Help wanted: 11 million college grads

The US is expected to face a shortage of 11 million skilled workers unless more students start getting college degrees.


This spring more than 2 million students across the US are doing something I’ve never done. They’re graduating from college.

That’s an achievement we should all celebrate. Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success.

College graduates are more likely to find a rewarding job, earn higher income, and even, evidence shows, live healthier lives than if they didn’t have degrees. They also bring training and skills into America’s workforce, helping our economy grow and stay competitive. That benefits everyone.

It’s just too bad that we’re not producing more of them.

As the class of 2015 prepares to join the workforce, what many people may not realize is that America is facing a shortage of college graduates.

“By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.”

That may not seem possible, especially for any graduate who is unemployed or underemployed. But here are the numbers: By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school. (That includes two-year and four-year college degrees as well as postsecondary certificates.) At the current rate the US is producing college graduates, however, the country is expected to face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers to fill those roles over the next 10 years, according to a new study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

I’ve had a couple chances to talk about this skills gap with Cheryl Hyman, the chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. We first met over dinner with a number of education leaders last year, and I was really impressed with her accomplishments. Raised in poverty in Chicago’s housing projects, she got a college degree in computer science, worked her way to the top of a Fortune 500 company, and is now one of the most innovative leaders in higher education. Since taking the job in 2010, she’s doubled City Colleges’s graduation rate.

After our initial dinner, Cheryl kindly agreed to come out to my office so we could continue the conversation:

One thing Cheryl and I talked a lot about is the key source of the skills gap. The problem isn’t that not enough people are going to college. (Enrollment in postsecondary programs has grown by over 50 percent during the last 25 years.) The problem is that not enough people are finishing. More than 36 million Americans—a fifth of the working age population—have gone off to college and left without a degree.

“More than 36 million Americans—a fifth of the working age population—have gone off to college and left without a degree.”

It’s always moving to sit down with students and hear the stories of why they decided to drop out. Many of them are poor and often the first person in their families to go to college. They arrive on campus with big aspirations to get a degree and start a career that would earn a good salary. Then their dreams unravel.

Many quit when they realize that their high schools didn’t prepare them academically for college. Some don’t make it because they can’t afford tuition. Others leave after getting overwhelmed trying to navigate the college system without enough personal guidance from their college. All leave school with a lot of debt and, even worse, a diminished sense of themselves. Their entire sense of what they can achieve in life is damaged.

The fact that a high percentage of people who don’t finish college are from low-income backgrounds should be a concern for all of us. Without degrees, they are more likely to stay trapped in poverty. At the same time, the scarcity of skilled workers in the labor market drives up wages for those with a college education, worsening income inequality in America.

At our foundation, we are working with college leaders, including Chancellor Hyman, to transform the college experience to make it easier for students—especially low income and first-generation students—to stay in school and complete degrees at an affordable price.

Cheryl and I discussed the need for colleges to create a less confusing course selection process. Students often waste time and valuable credit hours taking classes that don’t help them progress toward graduation because they don’t understand the degree requirements. New personalized online guidance tools provide students with clear, semester-by-semester maps to graduation and a career.

I’ve written before about how online courses are helping reduce tuition costs for college students and give them the flexibility to learn on their own schedule. While I’m enthusiastic about the future of online courses, I also agree with Cheryl that they’re not, as she put it, a “magic bullet” that works for all students. Some of her students, she told me, still need face to face time with instructors and classmates to help them learn how to interact with other people and work as part of a team. Critical skills nearly all employers look for in new hires.

While all of these efforts are important to close the skills gap, Cheryl says the biggest issue is changing the culture of higher education. For many years colleges measured success by how many students enrolled in their institutions and not whether they were training students for jobs that were in demand in the marketplace. “We’ve taken our eye off the goal. I think we’ve been divorced from the real world for far too long,” she said.

It’s time for higher education and the “real world” of employers to start working together to meet the demand for 11 million skilled workers in the US. If we’re successful over the next decade, we’ll do more than close the skills gap. We’ll also make progress reducing the large and growing gap between America’s rich and poor.