THE UNITED STATES has a declining percentage of students earning a college degree at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly important.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, only 34 percent of the nation's 18- to 24-year-olds are in college. Even worse, only 18 percent receive a degree or certificate, placing the United States 15th in the world.

This country is behind such nations as Poland, Korea, Greece and Ireland in college enrollment rates and the situation is getting worse. California was the only state to receive a passing grade, C-minus, on financial accessibility from the educational institute. That is primarily because of the state's huge and inexpensive community college system.

But California, like other states, is not doing as well in providing an affordable education at its university systems.

A leading problem is the cost of higher education, which has been increasing far faster than family incomes for decades. A generation ago, a student could pay for a college education, even at a prestigious private university, with a summer job and a modest loan. Today, a private school is out of reach for most students without a substantial scholarship.

California and other states cannot afford to cut back on funding for higher education. Also, increased funding from the federal government in the form of expanded student loan programs would be welcome.


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But colleges and universities need to re-examine their own financial systems to determine where costs can be cut and greater efficiencies can be achieved.

Unless the U.S. increases college enrollment and graduation rates, we will be less competitive and fall behind in the global economy. That must not be allowed to happen.