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U.S. goes from leading to lagging in young college graduates

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 6:07 AM

The United States has fallen from first to 12th in the share of adults ages 25 to 34 with postsecondary degrees, according to a new report from the College Board.

Canada is now the global leader in higher education among young adults, with 55.8 percent of that population holding an associate degree or better as of 2007, the year of the latest international ranking. The United States sits 11 places back, with 40.4 percent of young adults holding postsecondary credentials.

The report, to be presented Thursday to Capitol Hill policymakers, is backed by a commission of highly placed educators who have set a goal for the United States to reclaim world leadership in college completion -- and attain a 55 percent completion rate -- by 2025.

The campaign mirrors President Obama's quest to reclaim world leadership in college graduates by 2020, although it gives the country five more years to get there. The Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education set its goal in December 2008, seven months before Obama's American Graduation Initiative.

"I don't think what we're saying and what the president's saying are that different," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, the New York nonprofit agency responsible for the SAT and AP tests.

The United States ranks somewhat higher, sixth, among all nations when older adults are added to the equation, according to the report, which Caperton said would be the first of many annual reports charting progress toward the 2025 goal.

But the report focuses more heavily on younger adults, who are feared to be the first generation in the modern era that will be less well-educated than their parents.

Educational attainment has risen gradually among 25- to 34-year-olds in recent years, according to census data, with the share holding associate degrees or better rising from 38.1 percent in 2000 to 41.6 percent in 2008, the latest figure available.

The report is tailored to state leaders and ranks states by college completion among young adults. The District of Columbia ranks higher than any state, with 62.2 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds holding postsecondary degrees. Maryland ranks 12th among states, with a 38.6 percent completion rate; Virginia ranks 17th, with a 36.5 percent rate.

The commission is urging state and national leaders to pursue a 10-part "action agenda," which recommends such initiatives as universal pre-kindergarten for low-income families, better college counseling and dropout prevention, and streamlined college admissions, all of which might raise college completion rates. The group is led by William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

"We have a real, objective way every year to look at every state and see how they're doing," Caperton said, "and we're doing this with legislators all over the country."

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