College & Workforce Readiness

Obama’s College-Completion Goal: One More Sign That It’s Out of Reach?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 24, 2015 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

New international data released Tuesday show that if the United States is going to reach President Barack Obama’s goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020, it will have to boost the proportion of its young adults with college degrees from 46 percent to 60 percent in the next five years.

In trying to reach Obama’s goal, announced in February 2009, in his first joint address to Congress, education leaders have pushed to

increase the number of all adults attaining college degrees. But they’ve kept a particular eye on the 25-to-34-year-old age bracket, since those young adults are such a big driver of the college-completion statistic. That’s also the age bracket whose outcomes the current administration stands to influence with its college-preparation and college-access policies.

According to “Education at a Glance 2015,” the latest in a series of education-indicator reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 46 percent of U.S. adults 25 to 34 years old had completed an associate degree or higher in 2014, giving the United States the rank of 11th in the world. In 2010, the U.S. was also 11th in the world, with 42 percent of U.S. adults in that age group holding an associate degree or higher.

The OECD noted in its report that while college attainment in the United States has “always been one of the highest among OECD countries, other countries have recently been catching up.”

The numbers for bachelor’s degree attainment are far lower, with only 25 percent of young adults in the United States reaching that milestone. (You can click the chart to enlarge it.) You’ll notice that the chart below excludes decimal points, which play a key role in the national rankings.

The new data are yet another indicator of dim prospects for reaching Obama’s goal on his desired timetable. Not that this is a particularly new revelation; Robert M. Shireman, a former Obama adviser who now leads California Competes, admitted earlier this year that the goal had slipped out of reach. And just four years ago, the White House projected that states would have to kick their college-completion rates up by huge margins to meet Obama’s goal. Advocates of the cause, however, have contended that the high-profile focus on college attainment has benefited untold numbers of students, even if it falls short of the “world leader by 2020" goal.

The report has some interesting data, too, on social mobility through education. The OECD data show that U.S. students are far less likely than those in other countries to attain higher levels of education than their parents did. The report’s authors caution, however, that this could be due in part to the U.S.'s relatively high educational attainment, making it tougher for each successive generation to outdo the previous one.

Here you can see that the United States is among the four lowest-ranked countries when it comes to expectations of young adults outstripping their parents’ level of education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.