Jobs for the Future on President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address

Published jan. 31, 2012

This blog was written by former JFF President and CEO Marlene B. Seltzer.

President Obama’s blueprint for revitalizing America’s manufacturing industry, growing clean energy jobs, and preparing our workers for the 21st century will be a great step forward in rebuilding our economy. An important part of that plan is his call for new partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train and place 2 million skilled workers. As the President’s plan noted, “In today’s global economy, a college education is no longer just a privilege for some, but rather a prerequisite for all.”

To reach the President’s ambitious goal, we will have to deal with some troubling realities. Over 26 million adults in the United States lack a high school degree and 1.3 million young people fail to graduate high school every year. In 1970, the United States had the highest rate of high school graduation in the world; today, we rank 21st in high school completion and 15th in college completion. In addition, it’s estimated that some 93 million Americans lack basic literacy skills.

There is, however, growing experience with approaches that help more lower-skilled, low-income Americans develop the skills and behaviors needed to get into college and earn a degree or credential—and ultimately to succeed in today’s complex global economy.

Across the country, early college high schools are significantly improving graduation and college-going rates for our most disadvantaged young people. Innovative, recuperative education strategies are helping students who have dropped out of high school earn a GED and go on to community college. Similarly, several states are now implementing programs that help adults earn a GED or equivalent while also taking community college courses that will lead to a credential.

These models are based on a common principle: creating integrated, accelerated educational pathways directly tied to the skills needed by regional employers is the best road to success for those struggling to improve their lives. It is exactly these types of innovative models that the President is calling for as part of his proposed First in the World competition to boost higher education attainment and outcomes.

These innovative solutions will only work if postsecondary education is made truly affordable for everyone. The President’s call for continued low interest rates on student loans, an extension of tax credits, and other measures are important. And while we certainly applaud the Administration’s efforts to increase Pell Grant awards for low-income students, recent changes to Pell eligibility made by Congress severely limit the ability of low-income workers to access financial aid. We would urge the Administration to work with Congress to reverse this detrimental restriction.

Improving educational opportunities for all Americans is essential to our country’s economic recovery and long-term growth. We join with the President in his call to make this ambitious goal a reality.