Improving Two-Year College Degree Completion

By Jim Hull

Earning a college degree is essential to finding and holding a middle-class job. What gives cause for concern are recent reports that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in college attainment. As a matter of fact, national newspapers such as the Washington Post have reported the U.S. ranking had dropped to 16th in the world. With U.S. unemployment hovering near 8 percent and an economy still struggling to recover from the recession, it is more important than ever for our young adults to earn a college degree.

Keep in mind that college does not only mean earning a degree from an Ivy League university or another four-year institution. It includes earning a two-year associate degree from a community college. As I found out when writing the Center for Public Education (CPE) report, Getting Back to the Top: An International Comparison of College Attainment, it is in the area of two-year degrees where the U.S. can make the most improvement.

I wanted to look at where the U.S. stands internationally in college attainment rates for two reasons. One, President Obama has made it a priority for the U.S. to lead the world in college attainment by the year 2020. And two, I wanted to know more about the numbers behind the dire headlines. So I examined the data to determine where the U.S. actually stands internationally and the likelihood that we can reach the President’s goal.

I examined college attainment data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Education at a Glance: 2012. This report provides 2010 college attainment data for 41 countries, including all 34 OECD members. Note that college attainment rates are not graduation rates per se. The college attainment rates in my report are based on census data for each country that tell us what proportion of the adult population has obtained a college degree. College graduation rates tell how many students who attended college graduate with a degree.

Furthermore, college attainment does not say anything about the quality of such degrees, even though OECD’s analysis points out that adults with college degrees are better off on a number of measures, no matter the country. So college attainment rates are important measures for policymakers and the public to watch to ensure we are producing the number of graduates needed to keep up with the rest of the world.

After examining the data, three findings stood out to me:

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