Fort Lewis College has joined with hundreds of colleges and universities across the country in “Project Degree Completion: A Public University Initiative,” by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). By joining the initiative, FLC is committing to help increase the number of undergraduate baccalaureate degrees granted in the United States by 3.8 million between now and 2025, while increasing the quality of education provided and keeping the cost of that education affordable. The end goal is to help the United States lead the world in post-secondary degree attainment.
“Project Degree Completion is an unprecedented initiative that will drive the instructional agenda of public universities and colleges in the years ahead,” says M. Peter McPherson, president of APLU. “Never before have public colleges and universities, and our two associations, formally come together around such an important and sustained effort. This initiative is an economic competitiveness imperative for the future of the country and the individuals involved.”
The initiative lays out several areas where colleges and universities need to continue to improve to reach these goals. These areas include reaching out to former students to help them complete their degrees, increasing retention among current students, reducing the time it takes a student to earn their degree, increasing access to a college education and committing to a diverse student population, as well as working with K-12 and community college systems to improve a student’s preparedness for college.
“Fort Lewis College has already made many of these areas a priority,” says FLC President Dene Thomas. “With the joining of FLC to this initiative, the College reaffirms its pledge to make the education it provides as valuable and attainable as possible.”
Some might ask, why? Why is a college degree so important and why should students and their families make the commitment to earn one? There is a debate today in this country as to whether or not a college degree is worth it anymore. Is it worth the time, effort, and cost to the individual and society?
Dr. Shari Garmise, vice president of the USU/APLU Office of Urban Initiatives, responds that “The evidence is clear and the answer to both is a resounding yes—individual and societal investment in higher education pays off. A college education remains the single most important driver of opportunity and economic growth for individuals, communities and the nation. It is worth the cost to students for their personal return on investment and it is worth the cost to all taxpayers for the wider public returns realized through public investment in higher education.”
Fort Lewis College Provost Barbara Morris concurs and adds, “Fort Lewis’ mission to serve Native American students is of particular importance in today’s competitive global economy. Native Americans have the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the United States. Therefore, we are proud to award the most degrees to Native American students of any four-year baccalaureate institution.”
Statistics on the long-term worth of a college degree are not hard to find. For example, income, employment, and quality of life are all improved with a college education. By some estimates, college degree holders earn more than 80 percent more over a lifetime than non-degree holders. In the last 10 years, the national unemployment rate for those 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree has never risen above five percent. By contrast, those in the same age range with only a high school education suffered through unemployment that has been as high as 11.1 percent. College graduates are also more likely to vote, enjoy healthier lifestyles, and participate more in their children’s education.
The writing is also on the wall for the future of employment. Nationwide, by 2018, the percentage of jobs requiring a college education is expected to rise above 60 percent. In Colorado, the Colorado Department of Higher Education estimates that by 2018, nearly 70 percent of jobs in the state will require a college degree.
Looking beyond the individual, having a more education citizenry is vital to the global competiveness of the United States. As Dr. Garmise puts it, “U.S. economic and technological advantages during the past 150 years have stemmed from the nation’s historic commitment to public support of higher education and making it available to more people. That advantage is being lost. The largest professional workforces are rapidly growing outside U.S. borders, with China leading the pack.”
Today the U.S. ranks in the middle of the pack in degree attainment when compared to the rest of the world. The country is also slipping in terms of educational attainment in its younger people. America is one of the few countries whose older population is collectively more educated than its young people.
“The nation must return to its roots and the solution must be a public commitment to educate more people and to transform the higher education sector into an economic and democratic engine for the future,” says Dr. Garmise. “Without a doubt, the future will be built by the steps taken today.”
The decision made by Fort Lewis College to join the “Project Degree Completion” initiative is one such step toward improving the lives of its students and the people of the United States of America.