Widening Achievement Gap Hurts U.S. Competitiveness, Report Says

June 18, 2013

The United States' global competitiveness is suffering in part because recent policies at all levels of education have widened the achievement gap between rich and poor, according to a report released on Monday by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The report, part of the council's "Renewing America" series, says that stalled expansion of access to community colleges and student-loan repayment plans that favor wealthy borrowers have perpetuated a class divide, increased dropout rates, and curbed college attainment.

"The concrete changes that have been made to federal postsecondary policy—new debt forgiveness and tax breaks—have tilted a game field that was already in favor of wealthier students even more so, all at a cost to taxpayers," the report says.

As a result, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-old Americans who have completed college has fallen to 13th in the world, while older Americans earned college degrees at a rate that put the country third internationally. The slip puts the country's national security at risk, the council warns.

The sour analysis comes even as President Obama has set a lofty education agenda, federal funds for education have risen, and bipartisanship reigns on "the substance of education policy," the report says.

The council pins the lack of progress partly on the Obama administration's inability to muscle that agenda through Congress. For instance, though Mr. Obama has called for spending up to $37-billion on community colleges, Congress has appropriated only $2-billion.

One fix, the council suggests, would be to enact the long-delayed "gainful employment" rule, like that pitched again last week by the U.S. Department of Education, which would force programs, including many at for-profit colleges, to prove that students are landing jobs that can pay off their debt burdens.