“Where are America’s high-performing students?” by Barry Salzberg

Barry Salzberg, CEO, Deloitte LLP

Op-Ed for Forbes.com, September 2007

My Role:
To shape Mr. Salzberg’s passion about access to higher education into a call to action for other corporate CEOs.

As another school year begins, high school seniors across the country are starting to draft their college application essays. These students recognize that a college degree means something: It’s proven that a bachelor’s degree can add as much as $1 million in earnings over a lifetime.

And while a high school education might have been enough for most jobs in the last century’s economy, to succeed in the 21st century, we need knowledge workers with a college-level education.

So who are America’s college-bound students, the workers our businesses will depend upon in coming years? You might assume that the cream of the crop, our brightest students, are all applying to college. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Many of this country’s best-performing students—young people who have the potential to succeed in college—don’t fill out a single application. Statistics show that low-income students who score in the top 25% on tests apply to college about as frequently as upper-income students in the bottom 25% of test-takers. Every year, nearly 200,000 high-performing, low-income high school graduates voluntarily close the door to the life-changing potential of higher education. And while that statistic is sobering, we’re also losing millions of young people with potential in the middle range.

As someone who was once one of those low-income kids—and changed my life by becoming the second in my immediate family to go to college—I find those statistics unforgivable. As the CEO of a professional services firm, I find it unconscionable. We are wasting talent in America, and for the sake of both our people and our businesses, this waste must end.

Why are students who have the capacity to succeed in college not applying to college? A complex web of socio-economic factors contributes to the problem, including lack of sufficient academic preparation, issues of affordability—both real and perceived—and insufficient support from college-experienced adults, including guidance counselors and teachers.

Another reason is one familiar to me from business: “What gets measured gets managed.” We measure the performance of high schools on how many students graduate, but ignore what really matters: whether or not those students make themselves ready for the job market by enrolling in—and staying in—college.

A generation or two ago, high school graduation might well have been a destination; today, it is merely a launch pad. The American economy needs as many skilled workers as it can get–and that means college-educated workers. Businesses in every industry and profession report an acute shortage of talent. Seven in 10 companies say that the shortage of skilled labor is keeping them from growing their business.

That situation is not going to get better any time soon: The baby boomers, my generation, will start to retire in the next few years—and there are not nearly enough skilled workers in Gen X and Y to replace us. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Labor, 60% of new jobs require skills that only 20% of the workforce possesses.

Are we are in danger of perpetuating two separate classes of workers in America? Some believe we already have: college-educated, mostly white and Asian; and non-college-educated, including poor people of all races. Fortunately, something can be done to address this situation—and more can be done if more businesses step up to the plate.