New push for two-year degrees could be smart move for US, report says

The US ranks 5th in the world for the share of its adults with degrees, but only 18th when looking at the two-year programs that the study author says will be sufficient for many jobs in the future. 

If the US is to become a world leader once again in the percentage of citizens earning college degrees – as President Obama has called for by 2020 – it could go a long way by giving more attention to getting community college students over the finish line, a new report suggests.

Forty-two percent of adults in the United States ages 25 to 64 have four-year or two-year college degrees, putting the US in fifth place – behind Russia (54 percent), Canada (51 percent), Israel (46 percent) and Japan (45 percent), according to “Getting Back to the Top,” a National School Boards Association (NSBA) analysis of data from 41 countries collected by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (For the full report, click here.)

But the US drops to the 18th spot when looking only at adults who have two-year degrees, with countries ranging from Australia to Estonia surpassing the 10 percent showing in the US.

“Many of the new jobs of the next decade or so will require some college after high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree … so [increasing two-year degrees] can have a significant impact on our economy,” says Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst at NSBA’s Center for Public Education and author of the report.

When it comes to younger adults, a better indicator of possible future trends, the US fares worse. It ranks 14th in young adults (ages 25 to 34) with any college degree, and 18th in young adults with two-year degrees.

Russia, South Korea, Canada, and Japan have a quarter or more of their young adults earning two-year degrees.

The US does a good job of encouraging students to enter college. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college, yet only half eventually earn a degree, the report notes.

Trends in young-adult college completion rates have been on the upswing in recent years, but that might be largely due to the recession, which has shut young people out of the job market more intensely.

At the community college level the failure to earn a degree is often more pronounced.

“Traditionally in the US, more of our focus has been on four-year colleges,” says Heather Rowan-Kenyon, an education professor at Boston College. Two-year colleges are often the least funded, have high numbers of students who need remediation, more students with low incomes, and high numbers of both part-time students and part-time faculty.

“We have a disadvantage there compared to other countries who seem to be putting a lot of funds into their two-year structure,” she says.

Efforts to improve graduation rates at community colleges have been a mixed bag so far, Ms. Rowan-Kenyon says. “What hasn’t been found yet are the cost-effective, scalable interventions.”

But the K-12 system has a big role to play, in providing a more rigorous curriculum and better counseling to help students prepare for college, according to another report by NSBA earlier this year.

She also cautions that it’s not just the number of degrees that count. What the report can’t show, and what deserves a closer look, she says, is the type and quality of degrees being earned both here and in competitor countries.

The other missing ingredient from the report: up-to-date data on China and India, two economic powerhouses that are often mentioned in education comparisons with the US. The OECD report did not have data on India. Its China data were from 2000, while the other countries have data from 2010.

In 2000, just 5 percent of China’s adults had a two-year or four-year degree, and although that percentage has probably grown, it’s unlikely it would have moved from a bottom-of-the-pack ranking to anywhere near the top in just a decade, Mr. Hull says. Still, a country with such a large population is turning out huge absolute numbers of college-educated people even if its percentages are low, he notes.

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