"Thirty years ago we were the most college-educated country on the globe. Today we are No. 11."

Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, January 17th, 2017 in his executive budget presentation

The U.S. no longer has the highest proportion of college-educated adults

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives a briefing of his executive budget in Albany on Jan. 17, 2017. (Courtesy: Cuomo's Flickr page)

The U.S. used to have the highest proportion of college-educated adults in the world. But that is not the case anymore, said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"Thirty years ago we were the most college-educated country on the globe. Today we are No. 11," Cuomo said during his executive budget presentation.

Cuomo’s claim comes as he pushes for free public college tuition to students from families in New York state earning less than $125,000 a year. He wants to give low-income students more access to a higher education. His plan would cost taxpayers $163 million a year once fully phased in, he said.

Is he right about the U.S. ranking for college graduates?

Tracking the data

Cuomo’s claim would be true if he was speaking exclusively about young adults. The U.S. did rank 11th for college education for citizens 25 to 34 years old in 2015. When you add in 2013 data from Russia, our ranking drops to 12th.

But the U.S. ranked higher when including people of all ages.

The U.S. in 1992 ranked highest in the world for the percentage of its population with a college degree, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international data-tracking partnership among more than 35 countries. Thirty percent of the American population, ages 25 to 64, had a college degree that year.

In 2015, the nation ranked sixth among 43 countries for the percent of the population, ages 25 to 64, with an associate degree or higher. The U.S., at 44.6 percent, ranked behind Canada, Russia, Japan, Israel and South Korea.

Canada ranked as the most college-educated country, with 55.2 percent of its population, ages 25 to 64, obtaining an education higher than a high school level.

The organization included 2013 data for Russia in the overall rankings for 2015. Without the Russia included, the U.S. ranks fifth in 2015.

The Cuomo administration did not respond to our request for more information to back up the governor’s claim


A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said the rate of people with a higher education in the U.S. continues to grow, but the rates in other countries are climbing faster.

So other countries are catching up to where the U.S. was 30 years ago, said Elizabeth Berman, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany.

In some cases, a college education is also more accessible in other countries.

"The U.S. does expect students and families to bear the cost of higher education compared to comparable countries," Berman said. The cost of college in Canada, for example, is lower on average than in the U.S.

Cliff Adelman from the Institute for Higher Education Policy says the organization’s data should be taken with a grain of salt. The data is based on population ratios. The U.S. population has grown, and the populations in some other countries have declined, remained flat or grown at a slower rate, so that affects the percentage of people with a college education.

Our ruling

Cuomo claimed the U.S. ranks "No. 11" among college-educated countries.

The U.S. did rank 11th in 2015 for those 25 to 34 years old. But the U.S. ranking for those ages 25 to 64 did not fall by as much as Cuomo claims, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data. The U.S. ranked sixth in the world for that age category. We could not find a similar dataset with results that matched Cuomo’s claim. 

We rate this claim as Half True.