This cresting wave of diversity is reaching onto college campuses. The minority share of the entering class at two- and four-year colleges has increased from about one-fourth in 1995 to nearly two-fifths now. But completion rates for African-American and Hispanic students who start college remain considerably lower than for whites (or Asian-Americans). Because those black and Hispanic students make up an increasing share of the college pipeline, it is their high attrition rate that creates the risk that the nation's overall share of college graduates will shift into reverse.
That will quickly affect employers, because the Census Bureau has projected that through 2030 the number of working-age whites will fall by 15 million. All of the growth in the workforce through then will come from Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African-Americans (in that order). Frey projects that by 2030 minorities will become a majority of all young (18-29) adults. "The fact that the labor force will continue to 'brown' from the younger ages on upwards means that a great deal of attention must be paid to increasing minority postsecondary education so that the skill levels of our entire workforce stays competitive," says Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the insightful recent book Diversity Explosion.
That's where the sweeping plan Obama announced last week fits in. Obama proposed to spend $60 billion over 10 years to ensure that all students can complete community college at no cost. Students would need to maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and complete their degree in three years or less. Community colleges would need to demonstrate that their courses either facilitate transfer to four-year institutions or instill occupational skills that lead to postcollege employment. States would need to contribute one-fourth of the cost. But, fully implemented, the plan could both broaden access for students and propel overdue institutional improvement at community colleges across the country. "This is about reform in community colleges as well as increasing access," says Cecilia Munoz, Obama's chief domestic policy adviser.
Progress on both fronts is critical for the rapidly diversifying future workforce, because community colleges are the largest portal through which the growing ranks of Hispanic and African-American students access higher education. Path-breaking research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has found that fully half of the increased enrollment among black and Hispanic students since 1995 has been channeled into community colleges. That means the U.S. is unlikely to increase the number of minorities with four-year degrees without first improving community colleges. "Building a policy proposal around that institution almost by definition creates a portfolio for upward mobility," says Anthony Carnevale, the center's director.