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Getting Back to the Top

obriena's picture

We often hear that the United States has dropped to 16th in the world when it comes to the percentage of adults who earn college degrees – it is a talking point used consistently by both U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama. And the Administration is calling for us to regain the lead in this arena, for the good of the nation.

But is the situation really so simple? As with so many education claims, do we do ourselves a disservice when we accept these statements and goals at face value? In a recent report, Getting Back on Top: An International Comparison of College Attainment, Where the U.S. Stands, the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education unpacked the data behind these talking points. And some of their findings were a bit surprising.

It turns out that the United States ranks second in the world – behind only Norway – when it comes to the percentage of adults age 25-64 with a bachelor's degree or better (32%). However, we rank 18th in the world in the percentage of adults with a two-year degree (10%). Without differentiating between the two, we rank 5th in the world among the percentage of adults with degrees, at 42% (the Russian Federation ranks first, with 54% of the population having degrees, driven largely by the 33% of its population with two-year degrees).

It may also surprise you that younger Americans are just as likely (actually, slightly MORE likely) to have a four-year degree than older adults (33% of Americans age 25-34 have four-year degrees, compared to 32% of those age 55-64). And younger Americans are just as likely as other Americans to have two-year degrees (10% of 25-34 year olds have such degrees, as does 10% of the population overall).

So given we have a high proportion of the population with degrees, and given that young people are graduating at much the same rate that older generations did, is the claim that the U.S. has fallen in the college graduation rankings wrong? Actually, no. Because while the U.S. is consistently producing the same percentage of college graduates, other countries are now producing significantly more college graduates than they did in the past. In most countries, younger adults are more likely to have a college degree than older adults. Consider South Korea, where 39% of those age 25-34 have at least a four-year degree, compared to 11% of the population age 55-64. And 26% of young adults have two-year degrees, compared to just 2% of older adults. In total, 65% of young South Koreans hold degrees, as do 57% of young Japanese and 56% of young Canadians. This is compared to 42% of young Americans. If we want to again lead the world in college graduation, it is clear that we need to graduate more young people.

What is unclear is whether it matters whether we lead the world in college graduation rates. And though, as this report points out, there are bragging rights associated with being number one, I am not sure that it does.

However, it is important to consider the economic implications of our college graduation rates. Research shows that the majority of new jobs will require a college degree, with much of the increased demand being for jobs that require a two year degree or credential. One study cited found that demand for workers with associate’s degrees has increased more than 30%, while demand for workers with bachelor’s degrees has increased just 3%.  

I appreciate that this report so clearly differentiates between two and four year degrees. But I fear that is a nuance often lost in larger conversations on college graduation. In listening to calls for the U.S. to once again lead the world in college graduation, does the general public simply picture greater numbers of bachelor degrees? Do they consider the changing nature of the economy and work?

In talking about college graduation rates, perhaps it is time to move away from a call to lead the world – and to a higher level discussion about the economic needs of our country, regardless of what our rank is. After all, what good would it be to produce the most college graduates in the world if we don't have jobs that require those degrees?

Image from the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


This is an excellent article.

This is an excellent article. We have a great need for people who can write about statistics with more depth than just the usual sound bites.

It would be interesting to explore the achievement gap in greater depth. What is the probability of academic success for a student with two handicaps, for example,both poverty and a learning disability, or non-english-speaking and hearing loss. Will the teachers of such children receive a low evaluation for their slower progress?

This is a very complicated

This is a very complicated issue. Having 100% of adults with at least one diploma is simply impossibly! Here in our country and in all other countries, society has lots of jobs and occupations demanding no degree or high rate of intellect.
From the other side, college degree requires money. And the more prestigious the university is, the more money you should invest.
To make a conclusion I must say that we shouldn't keep to the quantity. Quality is what we need)