Americans aren't exactly making progress in closing the country's deep education gap. Thirty-two percent of Asians and whites held a bachelor's degree in 2008, compared to only 15 percent of blacks and Hispanics — a larger disparity than a decade ago.
The widening gap is worrisome on its face, suggesting that a problem district officials have long struggled to solve at the grade-school level extends well into higher education.
Taken in conjunction with a pair of other trends, the picture gets even gloomier, and its impact on the U.S. economy becomes disturbingly clear. Non-whites are expected to outnumber white Americans by 2042, and among the under-18 population in the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas, they already do.
At the same time, good-paying jobs that don't require a college degree are dwindling, as the country transitions away from manufacturing jobs that once supported the middle class into an ever-more high-tech economy.
Taken together, these trends suggest a mismatch between the future American workforce and the type of work a country must produce to stay competitive in the global economy. Educational disparities are growing at a time when the population of those less likely to be educated is growing, and as the proportion of jobs requiring higher education is growing, too.
Something, in other words, has to give.
"Just like demography generally, these things are so slow and structural, you don't know they're happening until they've already happened," said Alan Berube, who contributed to a new Brookings Institution report, the "State of Metropolitan America," that analyzed many of these trends using data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Renewable energy and green technology may yet yield a next-generation manufacturing sector to supplant the automakers and steel plants of the last century.
"But that's not to say any of these sectors are going to provide in large number good-paying jobs for people who have only a high school diploma," Berube said. "The days of those jobs in America being available to people who don't go get some sort of post-secondary education — those are largely over."
The U.S. could make a concerted effort, Berube suggests, to foster as many semi-skilled jobs as possible, encouraging the production here of the types of windmills and solar panels highly educated innovators will be designing.
"Rather than think we have to move everybody who doesn't have a four-year degree over that bar," he said, "we could work on the availability and opportunity for what people call these middle-skill jobs that demand a certification or an associate's degree."
We can only do so much, though, to change the structural direction of the economy. And it would be just as challenging to reverse population-growth trends that are already well under way.
The most effective policy solutions, then, would directly target the education gap itself. It makes sense to tackle that trend if we can't significantly alter the other two.
Much of the gap in college degree attainment is tied to more frequently discussed education disparities at the K-12 level. But Berube suggests we should also invest more heavily in the higher-education institutions most capable of reaching minority students: not just historically black colleges, but community colleges as well.
If we do nothing to close the gap, we'll wind up with an economy that matches our less-educated workforce.
"People may be able to buy the things and services that are the output of a skilled workforce," Berube said. "It's just that that skilled workforce may be somewhere other than the U.S. That doesn't help our living standards, and it doesn't help our trade deficit."