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U.S. education ranking
Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

America’s universities have long had a reputation for being the best in the world—a truth so apparently self-evident that it’s rarely been doubted or questioned. But what if the nation’s 5,000 institutions of higher education, as a whole, have fallen behind their international peers?

Indeed, there’s lots of evidence that American higher education could be doing significantly better. But how?

It’s a question The Hechinger Report set out to answer by visiting countries on three continents and examining their new higher-education agendas.

As President Barack Obama has noted time and again, the U.S. has slipped from first to 16th in the world when it comes to the percentage of our population aged 25-34 with postsecondary credentials. We’re at 41 percent, or about two out of every five young adults, according to the latest data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—and this despite the huge cost of U.S. higher education to families and taxpayers.

Lessons From Abroad

This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.

Read the rest of the series and keep up on ongoing news on our blog.

World champion South Korea is at 63 percent. Canada—with which the United States shares a border, yet which fares far better in this international ranking—is tied with Japan for second. Fifty-six percent of Canadian and Japanese young people hold degrees. Russia follows, in fourth, at 55 percent. So what’s going on?

Yes, the U.S. is home to Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale, along with top-rated M.I.T. and Stanford. And yes, the U.S. boasts 17 of the top 20 universities in the world, according to the most recent Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Yet these institutions enroll a thin slice of America’s 20 million college students. Far more attend two- and four-year colleges, both public and private, of often-questionable quality.

And for every U.S. student who graduates, two drop out. Nearly 80 percent of those who enroll in community colleges never finish what they start.

The United States is facing a projected shortfall of 16 million college-educated adults in the American workforce by 2025 if it doesn’t change the rate at which it produces college graduates. Young Americans today will make history for being the first generation ever to be less educated, and to earn less and live less comfortably, than their parents.

With the country on the cusp of a double-dip recession, millions remain unemployed and leading thinkers are suggesting that the 21st century belongs to China and India, not America.

Why? We hear again and again that it’s because America fell asleep at the wheel.

Our series, “Lessons From Abroad,” tells the story of a once-dominant nation in danger of being left behind. We invite you to be a part of the discussion, as it unfolds over the coming months on this site, in The Washington Post and in other national outlets. The Hechinger Report will turn its attention to higher education in China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. Blaine Harden reports on Japan in today’s Washington Post. Our hope is to spark a national conversation about higher education that continues well beyond our coverage.

In their new book, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum explain both the opportunities and the challenges facing the United States:

“To prosper, America has to educate its young people up to and beyond the new levels of technology … we need our education system not only to strengthen everyone’s basics—reading, writing, and arithmetic—but to teach and inspire all Americans to start something new, to add something extra, or to adapt something old in whatever job they are doing. With the world getting more hyper-connected all the time, maintaining the American dream will require learning, working, producing, relearning, and innovating twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as often, and twice as much” (emphasis in the original).

Our series attempts to showcase the vital lessons to be learned about how other countries get more of their students to and through college than the United States does. What works in higher education elsewhere? How are other countries increasing access and success among historically underrepresented groups? How are they maintaining quality without increasing costs, while also focusing on what students actually learn and are able to do?

More specifically, how has China doubled its higher-education participation in just the last decade—attracting students who once came to the United States for college—and how does it educate a quarter of the world’s students with just two percent of the global education budget? How has Canada increased attainment rates and integrated immigrants and native populations into its higher-education system? How has Ireland created strong linkages between its K-12 and higher-education systems?

And the most important question of all: For America to avert catastrophe and regain both its educational edge and economic dominance, how—and how urgently—must U.S. higher education change?

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. This is exactly why the KIPP Schools ‘experiment’ makes so much sense; it is an innovative way of addressing the callenge of educating our kids effectively and saving money at the same time. The other issue is that while there is strength in diversity, there lies potential ruin in the hodge-podge, fragmented nature of the US schooling system which is draining scarce resources: each state clings onto its antiquated ‘educational autonomy’, thus risking the nation as a whole. The educational fabric disintegrates further as each district in the nation practically does ‘its own thing’, all in the name of autonomy – but at what cost?

  2. I believe our higher education system needs to be more responsive to college dropouts, but what has separated the U.S. and will continue to do so is the freedom to pursue our passions in life. By many measures, the U.S. has a decided edge in creativity and our standard of living allows people to experiment with their passions until they find their niche. Our capitalist society encourages people to go into business for themselves. Our entire tax code encourages it by being so business friendly. That doesn’t lend itself to pursue working for others in a traditional sense as a variety of degrees may or may not be needed. That same capitalist society has shown educated people that if corporations can improve the bottom line by moving jobs overseas they will regardless of the training or degrees held by its workers. There has to be some return to patriotism and the will of CEOs and Boards to pursue the American dream here by committing to an American workforce! Globalism has allowed them to tap into workforces that demand much less compensation than Americans because they are coming from a standard of living well below Americans. It might help the bottom line, but it sure doesn’t help fellow Americans maintain their standard of living or pursuit of the American dream! I believe we need to improve education in America simply because if you aren’t improving you are either stagnating or worse. But, these realities faced by the average Amercian must be taken into account too in order to fully understand the actions of those trying to keep the American dream alive for themselves.

  3. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (PISA) test results have generated much discussion – is it “a Sputnik” moment or are international comparisons invalid? Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis.

    Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

    Your readers might enjoy answering one of PISA questions. It offers insights into the demands of higher order thinking. Do American students learn how to sequence (higher order thinking) or simply memorize sequences provide by the teacher?

    See my post for the question, answers, and PISA data – “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students”

  4. Our responsibility as educators is to do a better job of educating the public on the changes needed in education. I am not sure how to manage that task but it must be done. We live in a country where freedom of speech is highly respected and yet at times those speaking may not have as much of the background information needed to freely speak on the topic of raising the achievement gaps of our children in America.

    Too often tax payers have closed the door to the nedds of public education and they don’t realize the damage caused when educational issues are voted down because of past histories of poor managers. Unfortunately, the children suffer and are being punished because of managers neglect. I wish I had a simple answer to change the past disappoints of the educational system. However, the change is needed and unless our country recognizes the need for change, our educational ranking continues to slips downward.

  5. I believe that the costs of higher education prohibit a large percentage of students from attending or continuing their post secondary studies. Many dropout because loans are oppressive, or they can’t find the funds at all. Many go to work after their undergraduate degree because they simply cannot afford to stay in school further. We should address the outlandish costs of higher education in this country, as well as the type of education it provides.

  6. REFORM REFORM REFORM The entire Education system. Look at the rest of the world who is leaving the US in the DUST. definitely evaluate the Teachers so they would not get lazy as they are now.

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