That is the conclusion of two recent reports, including "No Time to Waste: Policy Recommendations for Increasing College Completion," released today by the Southern Regional Education Board.
"By 2018, the United States will fall far short of the number of new college degrees needed for an emerging economy that increasingly depends on workers with postsecondary education," board President Dave Spence said in a letter introducing the report.
One way of meeting the need, the report says, is tying state funding for higher education institutions to the rates at which students complete courses, certificate and degree programs -- something that is not currently done in most states, including Georgia and South Carolina.
Garrison Walters, the executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, said that while he agrees overall with the report, he disagrees with this plank, which he terms a "punishment" for colleges.
"That kind of formula-based approach rests on the fundamental belief that colleges and universities don't believe in completion and that the only way to get them to do that is to hit them hard with penalties in funding," Walters said. "I honestly don't believe the premise is accurate."
The Lumina Foundation released a report last week saying the entire country has a long way to go to meet what it calls the "Big Goal": having 60 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 hold a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2025. The Southern Regional Education Board advocates for the same goal.
"Reaching the 'Big Goal' is a national economic and social imperative," Jamie Merisotis, Lumina's president and CEO, said in a statement with the report, "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education."
Locally, Augusta State University has recognized this need for a while. Raymond Whiting, ASU's vice president for institutional effectiveness and research, pointed out a number of programs the university has to reach out both to older adults and traditional students straight out of high school or a two-year college program.
Scholarships and other financial aid, Whiting said, "are designed to help people come in and commit to education so they do not have to work as much."
"A huge percentage of our students work over 30 hours a week," he said. "For Augusta State University, the percentage of working students is much higher than most universities. Our students are either socially pruned to work or find it absolutely economically necessary to work."
But working that much while trying to go to college can be a big drain on a parent trying to acquire more skills.
Sometimes the stress forces a parent to stop short of completing a degree.
One solution at ASU is also advocated in the Southern Regional Education Board's report: "adult learners' groups," in which groups of older students with similar circumstances are brought together to help one another.
Institutions such as ASU, which has a higher population of older adults returning to college, are important, the Southern Regional Education Board and the Lumina Foundation say.
That is because these adults, many of whom already have completed some college courses, are a rich source of people capable of gaining degrees.