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Getting Back to the Top: At a Glance

Although the U.S. ranks near the top of the world in terms of the proportion of adults who possess college degrees, it’s quickly losing ground as young adults in other countries are earning credentials at a higher rate, according to the Center for Public Education’s latest report, “Getting Back to the Top: An International Comparison of College Attainment, Where the U.S. Stands.”

CPE’s analysis finds America can secure its standing, and bolster the nation’s workforce at the same time, by increasing the number of graduates with two-year degrees.

 “When it comes to attainment of four-year degrees, the U.S. surpasses many of the countries believed to be highly educated and ranks second only to Norway,” notes Jim Hull, CPE’s senior policy analyst and author of the report. “We now need to focus on improving the 30 percent graduation rate at our two-year institutions, particularly given the calls for a better educated workforce.”

The U.S. ranks fifth in the world among 25- to 64-year-olds who have a degree, if you don’t differentiate between two- and four-year-graduates. But that standing drops to 18th when looking only at two-year degree holders, Hull’s analysis found. 

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While the proportion of older Americans who are college graduates (42 percent) is greater than most other countries, its younger generation is not keeping pace with the 25- to 34-year-olds in other countries. Not only are other nations churning out significantly more young adults with four-year degrees, but significantly more young adults with two-year degrees. It’s in this latter area that the U.S. has the greatest chance of making up ground, if it wants to reclaim its title as the top producer of college graduates in the world.
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School board members and administrators can help prepare their students for postsecondary education by doing the following:
  • Provide all K-12 students access to rigorous curriculum (especially at the high school level) and the support they need to succeed.
  • Invest in well-trained counselors to help students with their post-graduation plans, including finding a college that best matches their goals.
  • Collect data on the postsecondary progress of graduates and view it as an indicator of the quality of high school preparation they received.

Download the full report (PDF) .

This summary is of a study written and researched by Jim Hull, Center for Public Education's Senior Policy Analyst.
Published December 5, 2012. (C) 2012 Center for Public Education.

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