Two years ago, President Barack Obama set a goal for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Yet, according to a study released last week, this goal may be further away than it was then.
A report released Tuesday by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows the U.S. has dropped from 12th to 16th place in the proportion of young adults ages 25 to 34 who hold a certificate degree or higher. Korea is leading the world in the proportion of students with some sort of higher degree at more than 60 percent, followed by Canada, Japan and the Russian Federation at just around 55 percent.
The U.S. has about a 40 percent attainment rate.
"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," The Washington Post reported earlier this week.
These facts made the senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. James Lindsay, rethink his attitude about higher education.
"Is America's traditional four-year approach the right one? Are most students well served by this model?" Lindsay wrote in a piece for CNN this week. "As much as I would like to give a definitive yes — I have taught at two major research universities — I'm not so sure."
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Washington Post that "the link between level of degree and earnings has broken down. Years of education matter less, and field of study matters more."
And even a 2011 study by Harvard concluded that instead of having a college-for-all attitude, the U.S. should have a "post-high-school credential for all" sentiment, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year.
The same article reported that 14 million job openings between 2008 and 2018 will only require that students have an associate's degree or occupational certificate.
But the four-year degree focus is not the only thing holding the U.S. back, notes Complete College America, an organization that hopes to encourage states to improve college graduation rates. It's actually keeping students in school once they get there.
While more than 70 percent of high school seniors now start some sort of higher degree program within the first two years after graduation, just over half of students who start a four-year degree finish within six years, and less than three out of every 10 students who start at a community college full-time graduate within three years.
"And the longer it takes to obtain a degree, studies show, the less likely students are to make it to graduation day," said Tom Sugar, with Complete College America, in an article published by the Deseret News earlier this year. "Unless things change dramatically and quickly, this will be the first generation in our history that will be less educated than their predecessors."
And the report reiterates this fact, showing while in most countries the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who attained a certificate or higher is greater than that of the generation of 55- to 64-year-olds, the United States is an exception.