The Obama administration is calling on governors to help raise the nation's middling college completion rate, suggesting several educational strategies and making grant money available in its quest to see the U.S. lead the world in degree attainment.
Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to unveil a 23-page "College Completion Tool Kit" at an education summit in Washington on Tuesday that features seven approaches for governors to consider, including performance-based funding of higher education.
"This is part of our ongoing efforts ... to help make every governor an education governor," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "If governors dramatically boost college completion rates in their states to all-time highs, it will be good for them and good for the country."
The administration wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Korea is ranked first, with 58 percent of its population ages 25-34 having finished college; the U.S. is in a four-way tie for ninth place at 42 percent, according to a study published last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
To regain the top spot, the Education Department projects the nation will need to hike its completion rate by 50 percent, which translates into an additional 8 million students earning associate's or bachelor's degrees by the end of the decade.
The department is publishing data Tuesday showing the percentage of college graduates in each state as of 2009, the number of grads needed for each state to have a 60 percent completion rate by 2020, and the number needed for a 50 percent increase in completion in that same period.
Current graduation figures range from a low of 28 percent in Arkansas, Nevada and New Mexico to 54 percent in Massachusetts. The District of Columbia topped all states, with 65 percent of its residents holding degrees.
Nineteen states have already set their own goals for increasing college completion.
The tool kit unveiled Tuesday offers seven "low-cost or no-cost" strategies _ with specific examples of how each is already being used in some places _ to improve college completion:
_ Set goals and develop an action plan.
_ Embrace performance-based funding.
_ Align high school standards with college entrance and placement standards.
_ Make it easier for students to transfer.
_ Use data to drive decision making.
_ Accelerate learning and reduce costs.
_ Target adults, especially those with some college but no degree.
Former Democratic West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said the recommended strategies have proven effective but are only one part of the puzzle.
States must also significantly raise high school graduation rates, while increasing the preparation of high school students for college-level classes, Wise said.
Education Department data shows that about one-third of first-year college students nationwide had taken at least one remedial course in the 2007-08 school year. At two-year colleges, 42 percent had taken at least one remedial course.
"It's about first getting the high school diploma, and the second step is making sure there is preparation behind the diploma," Wise said.
Toward that end, the National Governors Association is already spearheading the effort known as the Common Core standards initiative, which sets uniform academic benchmarks and has been adopted by 41 states.
Though a spokeswoman for the association did not immediately return a request for comment, Wise said he thinks state executives will be receptive.
"Every governor knows this needs to be done," he said. "Every governor would be looking for every partner he or she could find because they're all definitely trying to do this."
But Robert Schwartz, academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cautioned that hitting the goal of a 60 percent national graduation rate by 2020 still will not be a panacea.
Schwartz heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project, which released a study in February concluding that the U.S. education system should offer greater emphasis on occupational instruction.
"What's the strategy for the other 40 percent of people?" he said. "We can't keep saying, 'College for all, college for all' and yet set targets that even if you could meet them are going to leave out very large proportions of young people."
Also Tuesday, the Education Department will announce $20 million in grants for innovations designed to improve success and productivity at postsecondary schools.
The administration has proposed another $123 million in competitive funds for programs that speed learning, boost completion rates and hold down tuition.
A second proposed program of $50 million would reward states and institutions for producing more college grads.