Getting back on top of the college attainment rankings

Have you seen the headlines claiming the U.S. has slipped to 16th in the world in college attainment? Do you wonder where the data came from or whether this was true or not? Or asked yourself does it really matter? If so, check out CPE’s latest report Getting Back to the Top: An international comparison of college attainment which answers these questions and more.

To answer these questions I examined college attainment rates for 41 countries and came to three conclusions:

  • The U.S. is among the world leaders in the college attainment of adults 25-64. For example the U.S. ranks 2nd in the world in adults ages 25 to 64 with a 4-year degree.
  • When comparing the college attainment of just young adults the U.S. ranking drops considerably. For example, the U.S. ranks 11th in the percent of 25 to 34 year olds with a 4-year degree.
  • The U.S. can make significant progress towards regaining the global lead in college attainment by focusing on 2-year degrees. Just 10 percent of young adults in the U.S. have earned a 2- year degree which ranks 18th globally. If the U.S. could just increase the graduation rates of students who enroll in 2- year institutions from 30 to 60 percent (the 4-year college graduation rate) the U.S. would rank among the world leaders in college attainment.

While colleges and other factors certainly play a large role as to whether students go on to earn a degree, our K-12 schools can certainly help. According to our recent report on college persistence students who go onto college are more likely to succeed if they complete a rigorous curriculum and are provided counseling on how to navigate the college-going process before they graduate high school. Furthermore, our K-12 schools should collect and examine data on whether their graduates are going on to have success in college to determine if they need to adjust their curriculum and supports to ensure that their students not only get into college but go onto to earn a college degree.

Not only will focusing on 2-year degrees help get the U.S. back to the top of the college attainment rankings but as the Center for Public Education’s report on a 21st century education found, there will be a great demand for so called ‘middle skills jobs’ that will require some college after high school, although not necessarily a 4-year degree. So not only will focusing on two-year degree completion help put the U.S back on top of the world college attainment rankings it could also have a significant impact on our unemployment rate and our economy as well.

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