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A new report out from the Center on Education and the Workforce underscores a point that politicians, like President Obama, have started drilling in their speeches: America is falling behind its peer countries when it comes to education. This paper, The Undereducated American, highlights in particular the dearth of American college graduates in the workforce.

Introduced two years ago, Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, which has seen very little federal action thus far, calls for the United States to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. The report says it is “firmly in line” with Obama’s postsecondary education policies, in that the country should strive to become number one again. But there are some key differences between the two plans on how to get there.

Originally, Obama unveiled his initiative with the goal of increasing the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees by 5 million. By this spring, the number was up to 8 million.

But The Undereducated American has a higher number to shoot for – and only a few years longer to get there:  “In order to make up for lost ground in postsecondary attainment and respond to future economic requirements, the U.S. will need to add an additional 20 million postsecondary educated workers to the economy by 2025.”

According to authors Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose out of those 20 million postsecondary educated workers, 16 million of them will have to earn degrees. The other 4 million would have some college, but not graduate. They write, “Today, two third of young people in their late teens attend college for at least a year. We estimate that to meet the demand for more skilled workers… the number of youth attending college for at least a year will need to rise to 86 percent by 2025.”

The Obama administration has also placed a particular emphasis on community colleges and their importance in reaching its 2020 goal. But the report argues that the breakdown should heavily favor bachelor’s degrees over associate degrees, 15 million to 1 million, in order to fix some growing income inequalities.

In 1980 for instance, salary for those with a bachelor’s degree was 40 percent larger than those with a high school degree. By 2010 that it was 74 percent larger and if recent trends continue, by 2025 those with a bachelor’s degree will earn 96 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

Not only would adding 20 million postsecondary-educated people to the workforce start to reverse this trend, it would also boost the country’s GDP by $500 billion, adding $100 billion in tax revenue as well, the report says.

Doing all this is not impossible, the authors say. And if we can succeed, “It will make our level of education attainment comparable with other developed nations.”

For more information about higher education across the globe, check out The Hechinger Report’s newest blog: Lessons from Abroad.

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