In his speech last night, President Obama said, “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.” Not long afterward, a friend emailed to ask if I though this was realistic. Answer: It depends, as these things often do, on exactly what the president means.
President Obama is almost surely referring to educational attainment numbers compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD statistics showing that America has lost its long-standing lead in the percent of adults with a college degree are frequently used in education-policy circles as evidence that we need to repair various parts of our leaky education pipeline. (As someone who’s written a lot about low college graduation rates, I was glad the president noted that this is substantially a problem of people starting college but not finishing.) The relevant statistics, if you’re interested, can be found here, by clicking on “Indicator A1: To What Level Have Adults Studied?” and then selecting Table A1.3a on the spreadsheet. A glance at the table shows that there are two important questions to answer: Are we talking about just bachelors degrees (“Type A”), or bachelors and associate’s degrees (“Type B”)? And is the 2020 goal in relation to all adults, or just the newest generation of adults? If we want to be No. 1 in the percent of adults age 25-64 with a bachelor’s degree, that won’t be too hard, because we currently trail only Norway, 31 percent to 30 percent. Becoming No. 1 in the percent of adults 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree, will be much harder. We’re still at 30 percent on that measure — educational attainment in the United States has been steady for a long time — but Norway is at 40 percent, the Netherlands 34 percent, Korea 33 percent, Denmark 32 percent, Sweden 31 percent, and Israel 30 percent. This is the trend that has everyone so worried — the difference between the two age cohorts shows that we used to be much better than everyone else (we’re far ahead in the 55-64 age bracket), but other countries have since caught up and moved ahead. In terms of the percent of adults 25-64 with a bachelor’s or associates degree, we’re No. 3 at 39 percent, behind Canada (47 percent) and Japan (40 percent). In the 25-34 cohort, however, we’re 12th (also 39 percent), and some countries like Canada, Japan, and Korea are so far ahead (55 percent, 54 percent, 53 percent) that catching up in 11 years is unrealistic. This is further complicated by the fact that these aren’t all apples-to-apples comparisons. Different countries choose to structure their higher education systems and define degrees in different ways. Norway, king of Type A degrees, basically doesn’t offer Type B degrees. That’s not necessarily a good thing; I think there’s a lot to be said for diversity in credentialing so students can go to college for enough time to learn what they want to learn, and no longer. (I’d say that we should also have one-, three-, and five-year degrees, but what we really need is degrees that aren’t based on how much time you were taught but what you actually learned, and no, I don’t mean simple test-based certification but rather much richer processes that make learning goals and outcomes in higher education a lot more transparent than they are today.) Also, if these numbers are going to be the basis for national policy, they need to be accurate. The American Council for Education, the leading higher education lobbying group in D.C., uncovered inaccuracies in the 2006 OECD numbers recently. (The numbers cited above are correct.) A decline in educational attainment relative to other countries is obviously cause for concern. But we probably shouldn’t get too hung up on a few ordinal positions at the very top. America’s great advantage historically has been to combine high attainment rates with size. If we end up in a position where we have much better college attainment rates than all other countries or population groups of comparable or larger size (i.e. China, India, the collective E.U.) and fall behind only a few countries that are far smaller, we’ll still be in good shape. (When we identify our most fearsome economic competitors, I suspect Norway and the Netherlands aren’t near the top of the list, and for good reason.)
Put another way: As long as we’re the best of the biggest and the biggest of the best, we’ll be okay.