Restoring America’s Academic Competitive Edge

Our guest blogger is James Kvaal, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

America’s prosperity was built partly on its strong schools. For most of the last century, America led the world in educational achievement. Our academic edge drove the United States’ exceptional economic growth and low income inequality, according to Harvard professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.

The rapid increases in schooling were impressive. In only 30 years — between 1910 and 1940 — the number of 18-year-olds with high school diplomas increased from 9 percent to 50 percent. And 30 years later, about half of American students were attending at least some college — leading the world.

But since the 1970s, the U.S. educational system has rested on its laurels, and we are losing ground. Educational achievement among young workers (between the ages of 25 and 34) has slipped to tenth in the world, according to new analysis from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.


In part, that’s because tuition has grown by 439 percent over the past 25 years while family incomes have increased by only 147 percent, according to the Center. More resources are needed to keep tuition low and expand scholarships. The College Board makes a compelling case for financial aid reforms that could help more students earn their college degrees.

But there are broader problems as well. We also need to raise high school graduation rates, which average only about 73 percent by some estimates. Stronger academic preparation is needed, particularly in struggling urban schools. And we need to raise students’ aspirations and help them navigate the complicated college and financial aid systems.