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By Katherine Burns November 15, 2016

Though improving, U.S. still lags South Korea

When President Barack Obama promised the United States would lead the world in college graduates by 2020, it looked as though it might be attainable.

In 2013, when we last evaluated this promise, 43 percent of 25- to 34- year-olds had a college degree. As Obama increased Pell Grant funding and student loan regulations, it looked as though the United States might surpass South Korea, the leader in graduation rates. At the time, 64 percent of Koreans between the ages of 25 and 34 had a college degree.

The most accurate age bracket to compare recent graduate populations across countries is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation. This is because the United States had a significantly higher population of college graduates in the 1960s and '70s than other countries. Those numbers are still reflected in the work force.  

With the most recent data from 2015, South Korea is still in the lead, as 69 percent of students have a college degree. The United States is currently at 49 percent in this cohort. The United States also trails Canada at 59 percent, Ireland at 52 percent, Japan at 50 percent and Luxembourg at 50 percent.

The rate of increase in both countries is comparable — 6 percent in Korea, and 7 percent in the United States. However, if both countries continue to increase at the same rate, it does not seem likely that the United States will surpass Korea by 2020.  There is no legislation currently in the works to make higher education more accessible, making it even less likely that this percentage will increase dramatically.

We therefore rate this Promise Broken.

Our Sources

By Caroline Houck August 2, 2013

Goal will be hard to meet, but we found some positive signs

While campaigning for re-election, President Barack Obama set a goal: for the United States to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. Though recent political fights over student loan rates may hint otherwise, the United States is actually making progress toward that goal.

There a number of ways we could choose to measure which country leads the world in college graduates.

The most obvious — but least helpful — is the total number of graduates each country produces annually. An estimated 1.6 million students earned a bachelor's degree in America in the 2009-10 academic year — the second largest group after graduates from Chinese universities. But the United States, like India, China and other populous nations, can primarily attribute its large number of college graduates to its large population.

More useful measures calculate the percentage of each country's workforce that holds a college degree. The United States already ranks fifth among developed nations in the percentage of its total workforce (citizens aged 25-64) with a college degree.

But we're not doing as well for younger age ranges. In 2009, America had fallen to 16th among developed nations for its percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree — an indicator of more recent college graduation trends.

That ranking improved during Obama's first term, and in 2011 — the most recent year for which data is available — the United States jumped four spots to 12th.

"Under President Obama and Secretary (Arne) Duncan's leadership, we've doubled funding for Pell Grants, kept interest rates on student loans low, and capped student loan payments to make college more affordable and within reach for millions of Americans,” Department of Education spokesperson Stephen Spector said in an email.

This progress, however, is tempered by the long road ahead. Although college enrollment numbers for the upcoming year are not yet available, enrollment declined by 2 percent for the 2012-13 academic year — the first significant decline since the 1990s.

To overtake Korea, the current world leader, the United States would have to increase the share of its 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree from 43 percent to 64 percent. If last year's slight decline in college enrollment is not reversed, that would be difficult to accomplish without drastically improving the graduation rates for American college students.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely the United States will lead the world in college graduates by 2020. But with Obama's continued efforts to expand access to higher education in the United States, and the country's modicum of progress in international rankings, we rate this promise currently In the Works.

Our Sources

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "The Condition of Education 2012.”

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators,” 2013

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Education at a Glance 2013: United States - Country Note,” 2013

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Education at a Glance 2011,” 2011

Center for American Progress, "The Competition that Really Matters,” Aug. 21, 2012

New York Times, "College Enrollment Falls as Economy Recovers,” July 25, 2013

Inside Higher Ed, "Global Education Shifts,” July 12, 2012.

The Fiscal Times, "Your Guide to the Looming Battle over Student Loans,” May 30, 2013

Email interview with U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Stephen Spector.

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