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July 13, 2012 3:40 PM U.S. Not Closing the Gap on Educational Attainment

By Danny Vinik

President Barack Obama wants 60 percent of adults in the U.S. to have college degrees by 2020. If today’s new figures from the Department of Education are any indication, the U.S. isn’t going to come close to that goal.

The administration released new state-by-state numbers of college attainment for 25-34 year olds today and while the percentage ticked up by a half point from 38.8 percent to 39.3 percent from 2009 to 2010, it is nowhere near the increase needed to reach the President’s target.

Using data from the American Community Survey (which Republicans want to eliminate), the National Center for Education Management Services (NCEMS) released a report in April 2010 outlining what was necessary to reach the 60 percent goal. It wasn’t pretty then and isn’t pretty now.

NCEMS calculated that the U.S. would need to have an annual increase of 4.2 percent in college degrees over the next decade to reach the mark. If that number sounds high, it’s because it is. From 2000-2008, the average increase was just 0.34 percent a year. While the 0.5 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 is above that average, it is not a remotely close to a large enough rise to accomplish the President’s goal.

Obama chose the 60 percent mark because it would put the United States back near the top of the world in college attainment. A 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 16th in percent of 25-34 year-olds with a college degree. The OECD report also found that the U.S. is still near the top of the world in college attainment for older generations (six 35-44 year old, fifth for 45-54 year-olds, third for 55-64 year-olds), but has fallen off in the ranking for young Americans, in which it used to be top in the world. Obama is trying to reverse this trend.

However, even with the renewed focus on educating young adults, the results have been minimal.

As College Guide pointed out yesterday, the net cost of college is still increasing and cash-strapped families are getting the same reward from school (a degree), but paying significantly more. Especially during the recent recession, families have had to make tough decisions about whether the rising costs of college are worth it. A Pew Foundation Study from May 2011 found that 57 percent of Americans did not think college delivered a good value for the money.

With no sign of that trend abating, families will have to continue to make tough decisions about college. Many may continue to decide that earning a degree is a worthwhile investment. However, in order to reach the 60 percent mark, a huge number of young Americans (NCEMS calculated it at 8.4 million) who are expected to forgo getting a degree will have to change their minds. The president (and his eventual successor) can push for it as much as he likes, but that just isn’t going to happen without some more serious policy changes.

Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.