Newark Mayor Cory Booker said he was disgusted and angry.
With federal officials mired in debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, Booker appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on July 24 to discuss political gridlock in the nation’s capital.
The generation of the Great Depression built the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building at that time of crisis, but now "Rome, our capital, is fiddling with itself while the nation is burning," Booker said.
Booker then pointed out how the United States has fallen behind other countries in the percentage of college graduates it produces.
"We are a nation that, in that generation said, you know, ‘We're going to go to the moon. And we're going to do math and science and make sure that our kids are prepared to go there.’ But right now what's happening?’" Booker said. "Nations are passing us in droves. Over eight different countries now have a higher proportion of people graduating from college than we do."
PolitiFact New Jersey discovered that Booker’s claim about the country’s college graduation rate was mostly right. In terms of young adults with the equivalent of an associate’s degree or higher, the United States is tied for ninth among the 36 countries analyzed by the Paris, France-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
First, let’s talk about how Booker received his numbers.
The mayor’s spokeswoman referred us to an Oct. 19, 2010 speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in which he said: "Today, in eight other nations, including South Korea, young adults are more likely to have college degrees than in the U.S."
U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jane Glickman provided statistics from "Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators," which compares countries based on 2008 data. The OECD includes 34 member countries and works with other partner countries.
According to that 2010 report, the United States ranked ninth in the percentage of people between ages 25 and 34 to achieve an associate’s degree or higher. At 42 percent, the United States was tied with Israel, Belgium and Australia, according to the report.
The eight countries leading the United States in that age group were South Korea at 58 percent, followed by Canada, Russian Federation, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and Denmark, according to the report.
Older generations in the United States have fared better than in its OECD counterparts. The United States ranked higher in the percentage of adults between ages 35 and 64 who have college degrees, according to the report.
"Not too long ago we ranked at or near the top in the world, and while our rate has grown very slowly, other countries have experienced rapid increases and overtaken us," Glickman wrote in an email, adding "we must sit up and take notice, especially since a degree is increasingly important for job opportunities in a changing economy."
So Booker was right about young adults being more likely to have college degrees in eight other countries.
But Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's Indicators and Analysis Division in the Directorate for Education, said in an email that one should not put too much emphasis on small differences between countries, because of the varied educational systems.
Large proportions of young people in Germany and Austria enter apprenticeship arrangements, instead of higher education, Schleicher said. Russian Federation’s high graduation rate is related to short-term engineering studies that may not exist in other countries or only at the upper secondary level, which is comparable to high school in the United States, he said.
"A range of factors may affect the figures including the organization of the education and training system and government policies regarding education," Schleicher said in the email.
Alan Ruby, a senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said four of those eight countries leading the United States don’t make for good comparisons because of their smaller sizes.
But why does the United States rank below some of the other countries?
Schleicher suggested the tuition fees in the United States -- the highest in the OECD -- affect participation rates. Ruby said some young people falsely believe there aren’t benefits to attending college.
Booker said the United States trails "over eight different countries" in college graduates. The mayor shouldn’t have included the word "over" in his statement, but he’s on target when it comes to the younger generation of college graduates.
But since each country may have different educational policies affecting the overall rankings, we rate the statement Mostly True.
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