Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.
The stagnant U.S. performance on this key international benchmark reflects at least two trends: the rapid expansion of college attendance in Asia and Europe, and the continuing emphasis on four-year degrees in the United States while other nations focus far more on one- and two-year professional credentials.
“Most of these countries are moving ahead,” said Jamie Merisotis, chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, an advocate of higher education reform. “And we are stuck in neutral.”
Obama’s pledge challenged a society generally presumed to have the world’s best higher education system. The United States ranks second, after Norway, in share of adults age 25 to 64 with bachelor’s degrees. Top U.S. universities perennially draw huge numbers of foreign students.
But U.S. officials say it is crucial for as many young adults as possible to get a college degree of any sort to help the nation compete in the global economy. When the president announced his goal in July 2009 at a community college in Warren, Mich., the United States ranked 12th among 36 developed nations in the share of young adults with degrees. The college attainment rate for young adults, as the measure is known, was 39 percent. The figures Obama relied on were based on 2006 data.
Tuesday’s report, based on 2009 data, showed the comparable attainment rate has crept up to 41 percent. But in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.
The United States trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, which all passed America in the latest ranking.
“We don’t have any evidence that anything is getting worse in the United States,” said Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the OECD in Paris. “It is just that there is a great deal of dynamism all over the world, and many countries are catching up.”
The United States last led the world in college attainment of young adults in the 1970s. Could the nation regain the lead by 2020? The numbers are against it.
From 1998 to 2009, the share of young American adults with college degrees rose 5 percentage points. But Japan’s attainment rate rose 11 points in those years, and Canada’s rose 10 points. In the global horse race, those countries aren’t just in the lead; they’re pulling away.