Proponents of free market education reforms have been claiming for years that our schools are failing. One of their most compelling arguments has been that the dismal state of our K-12 public education system is responsible for our low ranking in college attainment compared with other nations.
The problem with this argument is that it is not true. The U.S. actually ranks fourth internationally in college attainment.
The commonly cited data is that the U.S. ranks 13th out of 34 OECD nations in terms of college attainment. However, this data only refers to the proportion of 25-34 year olds who have received a tertiary education, not the total number of people who have attained a tertiary education. When 25-64 year olds are included, the U.S. ranks fourth in the world, according to the Shanker blog. The rate of college attainment for American 25-64 year olds is 42, which is very close to Japan’s 45 (ranked 3rd) and Israel’s 46 (ranked 2nd). Canada is ranked #1, with a rate of 51.
However, even if we only look at college attainment rates for younger Americans, the numbers are still far better than critics claim. According to the OECD data for this age group, the U.S. ranking of 13th is based on a college attainment rate of 42. This was only 2 points lower than the 8th-11th ranked nations and only 6 points behind the 4th ranked nation. If all the nations with a college attainment rate of 42-44 are grouped together, the U.S. is tied for 8th with 7 other nations, and if those with a rate of 42-46 are grouped together, the U.S. is tied for 6th.
In reality, the U.S. is actually one of the most educated nations in the world and our education system should be seen as a success, not a failure.
It is true that our relative ranking has been declining, but this is because the college attainment rates in other OECD countries has been growing at a faster rate than in the U.S., according to the Shanker blog, not because American schools are getting worse.
Should we be concerned?
Of course there is always room for improvement in education. Even if we were number one, it would still be worth considering better ways to educate people. On a more urgent note, the skyrocketing cost of tuition, the stagnant wages for professors, and the declining course offerings and admission rates could all conceivably lead to declining levels of college attainment in the future. Yet teachers (indeed most American workers) have been steadily increasing their productivity in spite of declining wages. So it is entirely possible that teachers and students, alike, will simply accomplish the same with less.
That other nations have been improving their college attainment rates more quickly than us is most likely due to the fact that we already had fairly high rates of college attainment and it is much easier to make large gains when you are far behind.
Considering that many European nations offer free higher education, it is remarkable that we’ve stayed as close to the top as we have. One possible explanation for this is that Americans recognize the value of higher education and are willing to make large sacrifices and saddle themselves with tremendous debt in order to get it.
Another reason is that many European nations still have K-12 systems that track students into vocational versus university programs. In the U.S., a late bloomer who does not appear college ready by high school does not have to go directly into an apprenticeship program or blue collar trade. She could go to community college, beef up her GPA, and transfer to a four-year college later. Likewise, many students who lack the money or readiness for college at age 18-19 (e.g., young mothers) go to work right out of high school and later enroll in college. This may be why the U.S. ranks so much higher than other nations when college attainment is measured for 25-64 year olds.