A Q1 2007 report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) paints a chilling portrait of America’s challenges over the coming decades.

Titled America’s Perfect Storm, the report identifies three interacting forces that threaten the nation’s prosperity and cohesion. These forces are:

  • economic restructuring that places a premium on literacy and numeracy skills;
  • uneven distribution of those skills; and
  • sweeping demographic changes for the population, especially the workforce.

Much like Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book of the same name, the ETS report is based on a tale as true as it is scary. However, unlike the players in that book, who could only hope to survive as their fishing boat submerged off the coast of Nova Scotia, we as parents have a chance to help address some of the seemingly intractable problems that plague our nation before they sink our economic and political boat.

The purpose of today’s column is to bring this report, and therefore these problems, to your attention in a way that they may not have been explained before. That is a much broader purpose than this e-mail usually serves, but sometimes we must emerge from our world of AP courses, standardized test prep and comforts for the dorm room, and look at the wider universe in which we and our children are living.

America’s Perfect Storm grabbed my attention in a number of ways, and through waves of numbers. It surprised me, for instance, that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. nearly 40 years ago, in 1969, at 77 percent. By 1995, this rate had fallen back to 70 percent and it has stayed that way ever since.

Now, to be sure, a greater percentage of those graduates decide, every year, to pursue college, but what are the prospects for those 30 percent of high school students who don’t make it to graduation? Personally very dim for them, of course, but collectively not very good for all of us, especially when you consider the world of global competitiveness in which we live.

Presumably, you are reading this column either because you have a child already in college or one who will soon be entering post-secondary studies. On the one hand, you may be fine with the fact that not all students aspire to attend college, as that means a slightly less competitive admissions landscape.

Yet, when you consider that two-thirds of the job growth between the years 1984 and 2000 came from the creation of positions that require a college education, you then can begin to picture the dead end of opportunity facing those who don’t pursue at least a bachelor’s or associate’s degree. In short, what may be good for your family may not be good for your country and that is not a recipe for sustained national wellness.

The immigration debate is probably best left to another venue, or at least another column, but a cold dose of some immigration facts permeates the ETS report, and should be relayed to you for context as to why changing demographics are seen as contributing to America’s Perfect Storm.

According to the report, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population will be slightly more than 20 percent by 2030 and, in certain areas of the country, even higher. In 2004, the report states, “…nearly 57 percent of the 16- to 64-year-old Hispanic population in the U.S. was foreign-born, up from 46 percent in 1990. More than half of these immigrant Hispanics lacked a high school diploma.”

Since 80 percent of immigrants who have not earned a high school diploma report not speaking English well or at all, there is realistically little chance for them to overcome the chicken-and-egg problem of learning English well enough to finish high school and/or of finishing high school so that they can better utilize their learned English to attend college or score a well-paying job.

As the report concludes, “…if our society’s overall levels of learning and skills are not increased and the existing gaps are not narrowed, there is little chance that economic opportunities will improve among key segments of our population.”

What can be done? That is the $64,000 question or, to be more precise, the $1,958,000 question as that is the difference, on average, between the lifetime earnings of one with a college degree and someone who fails to attain a high school diploma or GED.

We don’t claim to have the answer here, but I do see this article as starting a dialogue which can eventually lead to solutions. I encourage you to visit Hoverings, our blog for current and future college and read our entry: Share Your Thoughts on Building a Bright Future for America’s Children.

For more information or to download a copy of the complete report, visit: www.ets.org/stormreport. Be prepared for a sobering ride as you read this somber assessment of America’s past performance, present challenges and future prospects when it comes to educating our workforce.