How Realistic Are Obama’s College Graduation Targets


One very interesting portion of Obama’s speech last night was when he took note of how the United States has started to fall behind other countries in terms of college graduation rates. He vowed to turn this around: “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.” What would that actually entail? As Kevin Carey explains it depends what you’re talking about:

If we want to be #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% to 30%.

If we want to be #1 in the percent of adults 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree, it will be much harder. We’re still at 30% on that measure–educational attainment in the U.S. has been steady for a long time–but Norway is at 40%, the Netherlands 34%, Korea 33%, Denmark 32%, and Sweden 31%, Israel 30%. 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 #3 at 39%, behind Canada (47%) and Japan (40%). In the 25-34 cohort, however, we’re 12th (also 39%), and some countries like Canada, Japan, and Korea are so far ahead (55%, 54%, 53%) that catching up in eleven years is unrealistic.

When Obama said this, I immediately turned to my girlfriend and started complaining. It’s part and parcel of a thread of social policy nationalism that runs through a lot of Obama’s rhetoric and that I don’t particularly care for. Mark Kleiman and Andrew Sabl debate it a bit here. I don’t, personally, like the implication that the problem with our stagnating college completion rate is that Norwegians are doing better. After all, given the actual capabilities and social structure of the United States, it would be a lot easier for us to just bomb Norway into oblivion than to undertake systematic improvements in high school seniors’ level of preparation for higher education. More generally, it’s actually good for us that Canada, Japan, and Korea have such well-educated populations. It’s even better for them, but ultimately it’s good for everyone. The positive-sum nature of the global community is an important strand in Obama’s rhetoric about foreign policy, but it tends to go missing on social policy.

At the same time, if invoking the spirit of competition is what it takes to get Americans excited about better schools and new investments in clean energy, I’m not sure that’s all that terrible.