Race to the Top is a good goal, but too ambitious

President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to be No. 1 in college completion by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, that his Race to the Top initiative is trying to meet.

The U.S. ranks only 15th in college graduation rates among 29 developed countries, according to a 2008 study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. And only 18 percent of students who enrolled at U.S. colleges actually graduated.

To push America above the pack in 10 years, it would probably take more of a commitment than the government is willing or able to make. Obama’s plan to create competition between states through their planning could help, but it won’t be enough.

Phil Bredesen, governor of Tennessee – one of the first-round winners of the Race to the Top grant money – said to the Chronicle of Higher Education that the goal was a fine aspiration, but probably not achievable.

“In a generation? Maybe. Fifty years? Maybe,” he said.

To reach Obama’s 2020 goal, Tennessee would have to increase the number of degrees and credentials awarded by 5.9 percent every year, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

The goal is likely unattainable, but that doesn’t mean states shouldn’t try. To raise graduation rates, a clear emphasis needs to be placed on poor-performing southern states like Florida, which was considered to have a good shot at winning one of the federal grants.

State officials were hoping for more than $1 billion out of the $4 billion allotment, but Tennessee and Delaware won the race for the first round of funds last month.

Even if Florida doesn’t get any money in the next round, it should still strive to improve graduation rates, though that may be tough during this economy. A report released last week by the Southern Regional Education Board said southern states should work on identifying students from low-income families and giving them extra assistance because they are more likely to drop out than other groups.

Education systems are struggling across the U.S., so now may not be the best time for Obama to make states compete against each other for the most original ideas when providing adequate funding would go a long way toward improving graduation rates. Though very ambitious, Obama’s plan could be a step in the right direction if the quest is to reach the top in education.