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The United States: Falling Behind in College Degrees

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Back in the 1980s, the United States led the world in having a college-educated workforce. Over the past few decades, though, things have changed dramatically. According to a disturbing new report issued by the College Board this Thursday, July 22, the United States ranks 12th among 36 developed countries in the number of adults with college degrees. College and high school graduation rankings have also dropped drastically, and the College Board warns that this growing gap between the U.S. and other countries threatens to undermine American economic competitiveness.

College Board Warns Leaders on Capitol Hill

The New York Times reported on Friday, July 23 that Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, had a grim message for the education leaders and policy makers at a meeting held on Capitol Hill: “The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis.”

As CBS News explained, the College Board’s report urged the Obama administration to work to “increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate degree or higher to 55 percent by the year 2025 in order to make America the leader in educational attainment in the world.”

Obama’s American Graduation Initiative

Approximately one year ago, President Barack Obama spoke of such an educational goal during a speech he gave at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, telling the audience, “At the start of my administration I set a goal for America: By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. We used to have that. We’re going to have it again.”

“Today I’m announcing the most significant down payment yet on reaching the goal of having the highest college graduation rate of any nation in the world. We’re going to achieve this in the next 10 years. And it’s called the American Graduation Initiative. It will reform and strengthen community colleges like this one from coast to coast so they get the resources that students and schools need— and the results workers and businesses demand,” President Obama explained to those present at Macomb Community College on July 14, 2009.

College Enrollment Remains High, but Graduation Rates are Dropping

Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college within two years of their graduation, yet only slightly more than half of the students who begin bachelor’s degree programs graduate within a six year period. The completion rate for students enrolling in community college programs is even lower; fewer than 25 percent of students earn an associate’s degree within three years.

According to the new College Board study, the District of Columbia – Washington, D.C. – has the highest percentage of young people with college degrees, not completely surprising for an area in which many people have government jobs.

It’s Time to Mess with Texas … and Get More Graduates

The Houston Chronicle reported that more than 62 percent of Washington, D.C.’s young people—or those between the ages of 25 to 24 years old—have college degrees, while only 27 percent of Texans in that age bracket hold degrees.

University of Texas at Austin professor Richard Reddick told the Chronicle that the state falls short in college graduates for a few reasons. “Texas is a unique state in that we do have a population that’s younger, and we have less folks who are getting the advantage of having college-educated family members,” Reddick said. “When students don’t have that support at home, they have a unique challenge.”

What Happened, Anyway?

Canada currently leads the world in this important college degree race, according to the College Board report. Approximately 56 percent of Canada’s young adults had earned at least an associate’s degree in 2007, while roughly 40 percent of young adults in the U.S. had degrees.

Wondering how this happened?

William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who was present at the Capitol Hill meeting, told the New York Times, “We led the world in the 1980s, but we didn’t build from there. If you look at people 60 and over, about 39-40 percent have college degrees, and if you look at young people, too, about 39-40 percent have college degrees. Meanwhile, other countries have passed us by.”


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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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