On May 1st First Lady Michelle Obama will celebrate College Signing Day at Wayne State University by addressing more than 2,500 students from over 40 Detroit area high schools. Her Reach Higher Initiative is aimed, in part, at developing a strong college-going culture that normalizes the pursuit of education beyond high school. Encouraging students to “Reach Higher” is as non-partisan as it gets: no new legislation is required, no emergency school board meeting necessary, and the only budget implication might be twenty dollars for a new college t-shirt that proudly displays your alma mater.
While celebrating the fact that America is experiencing the highest high school graduation rates on record, there is a need to simultaneously be concerned with how to move the college enrollment and graduation needle. Presently 40% of adults ages 25-64 in the U.S. have a postsecondary credential. The U.S. now lags behind other industrialized nations in the proportion of citizens with a college degree, and it is estimated that this percentage will need to grow to 60% in order for the U.S. to be first in the world. This means that the country needs to produce 20 million new degree holders above the current projections. Yet, the fastest growing groups of young people in America are among the least likely to attend and graduate from college.
Educators are clear about many of the major barriers to achieving this goal, including the rising cost of attending college, the fact that too many students who leave high school academically ill-prepared for college-level coursework, and the fact that too many students who start college do not complete with high quality degrees. The numbers of working-aged adults, for example, with some college education but no degree (36 million), outnumber those in the same age group with bachelor’s degrees (32.9 million).
Business leaders, elected officials, and social critics all agree about the need to produce a greater number of citizens with a college degree or postsecondary credential. As policy wonks, researchers, and advocates fuss about how to most effectively treat these issues, it is important to also consider the significance of culture—values, norms, socially acceptable behavior, and communal expectations–and the ways in which culture influences college access and success. Cultural norms are not static but progressive and reflect social learning over time. College Signing Day events are significant because communities come together to signal to students the importance of college-going, they transmit expectations to enroll and complete college, and perhaps most importantly, they celebrate all students, not just star athletes and valedictorians.
This Friday May 1st, more than 400 events across the nation have been planned to celebrate College Signing Day. Changing attitudes, expectations, and social behavior among students and communities is an important component of the nation’s degree completion agenda. Communal expectations associated with college-going are especially important for students who will be the first in their families to attend college. Closing attainment gaps and dramatically increasing the number of college graduates in the U.S. will not simply be a matter of finding the right policy solutions or adjusting budget priorities, it will require a progressive cultural shift that makes becoming a college graduate the rule rather than the exception for an increasingly diverse generation of young Americans.
Dr. James T. Minor is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs in the Office of Postsecondary Education.