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First in the World by 2020: What Will It Take?


Bryan Cook and Terry W. Hartle


​On February 24, 2009, President Barack Obama laid out a bold challenge. “By 2020,” the new president proclaimed, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

There is something bracing about a president laying out such a dramatic proposal. And sometimes—as was the case with the effort to put a man on the moon in the 1960s—the nation reaches an objective that initially seemed impossible. But often, we fall short. This has been especially true with national education goals. Both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush laid out national goals related to elementary and secondary education, and in neither case did the United States come close to reaching them.

The impetus for President Obama’s ambitious goal was Education at a Glance, an annual statistical report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report provides a wide array of international education statistics, including postsecondary educational attainment rates—essentially, the proportion of the population with a postsecondary credential. According to the OECD analysis, the United States has historically been among the leading nations in postsecondary attainment and the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential has grown significantly over the last decade. Indeed, the number of associate and bachelor’s degrees awarded annually increased from 1.7 million in 1997 to 2.4 million in 2007—a 39 percent gain.
But even as the number of college graduates increased sharply, other nations have caught up and some have even eclipsed the U.S. attainment rate. For example, between 1997 and 2008 (the latest year of available OECD data), the postsecondary education attainment rate for Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 rose from 35 percent of the population to 41 percent. By contrast, the attainment rate for Japan jumped from 31 to 43 percent and New Zealand’s rate increased from 27 to 40 percent.
The reason we are falling behind is simple: Other nations are making greater strides among young adults. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 with a college credential increased slightly, from 36 to 42 percent. Not bad, but that gain is dwarfed by the progress of some other countries. The attainment rate of young Koreans, for example, swelled from 34 percent of the population to 58 percent. As this happened, Korea moved from fifth in educational attainment to first—an extraordinary achievement. Conversely, over this same time period, the relative standing of the United States fell from third to tenth.
A Closer Look
However, the data are far from perfect and looking at them in more detail is constructive. The OECD data count anyone holding a “tertiary educational credential,” a term that each country interprets for itself. The United States counts associate and bachelor’s degrees but excludes the large number of individuals who earn postsecondary certificates, such as nurse’s aides, dental hygienists, and paralegals. Many other nations include certificates in their postsecondary credential counts. Including the roughly 700,000 certificates awarded annually by American colleges and universities would boost the standing of the United States.

Another big problem exists: Given its size, it is far harder for the United States to increase educational attainment than for other nations to do so. With 310 million Americans, our population is more than double that of the next largest country ahead of us in educational attainment. In addition, our population continues to expand—since 1990, it has grown by 24 percent, a growth rate greater than that of almost all the countries ahead of us in the ranking. In most of those countries, the populations remain stable.

Additionally, the U.S. population is far more diverse than those of the nations ahead of us, and the fastest growing segments of our population are racial/ ethnic minorities who are disproportionally low-income and the least prepared for postsecondary education. Postsecondary attainment of African Americans and Hispanics has increased over the years—a welcome development. Nonetheless, there remains a significant gap between their educational attainment rates and those of whites and Asian Americans. The racial/ethnic disparity in higher education is a chronic challenge, but it is a gap that we will have to close if we are to have any chance of reaching the president’s goal.

Despite the imperfect data and the demographic challenges, young adults are receiving postsecondary education credentials at a rate that is not appreciably higher than their parents and grandparents. Forty-two percent of Americans aged 25–34 have attained a college degree, as compared to 40 percent for adults aged 55–64. Some observers project that if the current trends continue, the United States may well—for the first time in modern history—produce a generation that is less educated than those that preceded it. What a dismal accomplishment.
All Together Now
It’s far too soon to tell if we will be able to meet the president’s objective. But increasing the educational attainment of young Americans is more than just a national necessity. In a shrinking, globalizing, and ever more competitive world, it is an economic imperative.

The president’s goal has sparked a discussion about retention and graduation in the United States that is welcome and overdue and, as a result, almost every postsecondary educational institution in the country has started to give more attention to these issues. Education, policy, and philanthropic organizations as diverse as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the College Board, and Lumina Foundation for Education have begun to address the issue in a substantial and meaningful way. This represents an important start.
But make no mistake, postsecondary education institutions, foundations, and associations cannot reach the 2020 goal by themselves. All have a central role to play and their full engagement is a must. But two other critical steps are largely outside the control of institutions and foundations.
First, colleges need high school graduates who are ready to tackle college-level work when they enter. As it stands, nearly 50 percent of recent high school graduates take a remedial course within their first two years of college. Research reveals students who need significant remedial education are far less likely to complete a postsecondary degree than their better-prepared peers.
The nation has, for many years, been engaged in an urgent effort to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education. Colleges and universities obviously have a huge stake in the outcome of these efforts and need to be active partners in improving the quality of elementary and secondary schools. One straightforward step is to make clear the academic expectations that colleges have for incoming students. For example, the California State University System’s Early Assessment Program allows students in the 11th grade, as part of a larger standardized assessment, to answer a set of questions that test the students’ ability to perform college-level work in English and math. This gives students the chance to address deficiencies before they reach college.
Second, states need to stop abandoning their responsibility to fund public higher education. More than 70 percent of college students are enrolled in public institutions and the financial stability of those institutions depends heavily on the decisions that state governments make about supporting them. Over the last 20 years, state government support of higher education has fluctuated, but in almost every state today, it is a smaller percentage of the state budget than it was a decade ago. Hardly any public colleges or universities still receive the same share of their budget from state sources as they did a decade ago.
The current economic downturn is likely to exacerbate this problem considerably. Because federal economic stimulus funding has been exhausted, 2011 and 2012 will be more challenging years for public colleges in many states than were 2009 and 2010. Clearly, state budgets have suffered grievously in recent years. But colleges and universities run on money and—if we expect them to boost degree production—stable and dependable funding is absolutely critical. Cuts in state support mean any number of things: increased class size, higher tuition, fewer professors, reductions in student support services, less financial aid, and fewer class offerings for students. None of these outcomes help increase the number of college graduates.

The president deserves great credit for putting higher education at the top of the public agenda. Important things have already happened as a result: Institutions are focused on issues surrounding retention and completion, and federal support for student aid has jumped significantly. These are important developments not to be overlooked.

But it is far too soon to tell whether we as a society will continue to take the necessary steps to make the president’s goal a reality. When energized, America is capable of amazing accomplishments in relatively short periods of time. But we live in a troubled era and constraints—especially financial ones—press in on all sides. We have started down the path in a promising direction. Whether we reach the goal remains an open question.
Bryan Cook is director, Center for Policy Analysis, American Council on Education, and Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president, Division of Government & Public Affairs, ACE.