When it first came into office, the Obama administration said that one of its primary education goals is making the U.S. the country with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity — it is a prerequisite,” Obama said.
But reaching that goal has only gotten harder in recent years, as America’s educational attainment has plummeted. According to a new report by the College Board, the U.S. is now 12th among OECD nations in the percentage of 25-34 year olds with a college degree:
Canada is number one in terms of attainment, with 56 percent of 24-35 year olds obtaining a college degree, compared to 40 percent of Americans. Two years ago, the latest data put the United States tenth. “The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis,” said Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board.
To get a sense of how much has to be done to catch up, consider that “the U.S. would have to add 1 million college degrees per year through 2025, on top of the 2 million degrees already awarded annually, to reach 56 percent.” Part of the problem here is that the U.S. is also falling behind in terms of percentage of the population that even attends college. Just 35 percent of 18-24 year olds were enrolled in some form of higher education in 2008, according to the National Center on Public Policy and Education, compared to more than 50 percent of South Koreans.
In order to address this problem, policymakers will have to do many things, but one of the first is improving educational opportunities for minorities:
Part of the challenge in reaching the goal of 55 percent of young Americans with an associate degree or higher lies in erasing disparities in educational attainment for low-income students and underrepresented minorities. By eliminating the severity of disparities between underrepresented minorities and white Americans, it is estimated that more than half the degrees needed to meet the 55 percent goal would be produced.
The Lumina Foundation estimates that the American economy will face a shortage of 16 million college educated workers by 2025. As former President Bill Clinton said, falling educational attainment is a real problem and “we are headed into long-term economic decline if we don’t do something about it.”