In a push to meet President Obama’s goal of having America lead the world in college completion by 2020, Vice President Biden issued a call to states to do their part at America’s Promise Alliance’s Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C. late last month. At the Summit, he said:

“Right now we’ve got an education system that works like a funnel when we need it to work like a pipeline.”

His statement highlighted a serious problem plaguing America’s higher education system– while more than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in some kind of advanced education within two years, just over one-half of bachelor’s degree candidates complete their degree within six years, and less than one-third of associate’s degree candidates earn their degree within three years.

Given that a majority of jobs within the next decade will require at least some postsecondary education, addressing this problem is a priority for our future economic prosperity.

First, Vice President Biden urged governors to hold college completion summits in their states to raise the profile of this issue, and to spur dialogue and action to raise each state’s share of college graduates it produces.

He also unveiled a College Completion Toolkit, published by the Department of Education, which includes seven strategies states could use to boost their numbers of college graduates.

These strategies include:

  • Setting goals and developing action plans
  • Embracing performance-based funding for higher education institutions
  • Aligning high school exit standards to college entrance requirements
  • Making it easier for students to transfer and
  • Targeting adults with some college but no degree.

Indeed, the toolkit points out that by targeting those with some college but no degree, states could go a long way towards meeting President Obama’s 2020 goal.

To complement the College Completion Toolkit, the Department of Education also published calculations breaking down each state’s share of additional college degrees it would need to produce to meet the 2020 goal.

Vice President Biden also announced new financial resources the administration is making available to help states meet the 2020 goal, such as the 2011 Comprehensive Grant Program, which will provide $20 million to colleges to implement plans that can increase success and improve productivity in postsecondary schools.

While states have an important role to play in increasing the preparedness of America’s workforce, so does the business community. While states can raise the profile of the importance of college completion and can help create incentives for schools to produce more graduates, businesses can also play a positive and important role in partnering with colleges and local governments to build and enhance the talent pipeline.

This is especially true with respect to lower-income young adults, who face a challenging time completing their degrees due to financial strains and, oftentimes, eldercare or childcare responsibilities. In many instances, businesses have found ways to enable these young adults to work while going to school, supporting their education through mentoring, internship opportunities, tuition support and flexible scheduling. In return, these businesses take an active role in developing their talent base.

Stephen M. Wing, Corporate Voices’ president and new member of America’s Promise Alliance’s Board of Trustees, participated in the Summit, and said,

“Innovative partnerships between employers and community colleges are so important because, in reality, so many community college students must work in order to support themselves and their families.”

Corporate Voices for Working Families believes that these types of Learn and Earn models are beneficial for businesses, workers, colleges and communities. Under the auspices of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it has documented the imperative of employer and community college Learn and Earn partnerships, and is continuing to identify and encourage these types of models of talent development.

As one of Corporate Voices’ newest reports illustrates, the need to engage the business community in building the capacity of our workforce is real, as53 percent of business leaders report having a challenging time recruiting employees with the skills and education their companies need, despite our high levels of unemployment.

Through engagement in Ready by 21, Corporate Voices is also working with businesses and other local stakeholders to help communities improve the odds that all youth will be ready for college, work and life. And, through its New Options Project, Corporate Voices is engaging the employer community to create career pathways for disconnected young adults, a largely overlooked pool of untapped talent.

So, as states do their part to meet the administration’s call for higher college completion rates, businesses and employers can also embrace meaningful programs and practices to retain and develop key talent and help improve America’s competitiveness in the global economy.

(If you are interested in participating as either a leader or learner of successful business-led talent development programs within Corporate Voices’ workforce readiness work, please contact Sara Toland at stoland@corporatevoices.org.)