Why Americans Aren't Finishing College

Is the United States not as smart as many other countries around the world? According to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, maybe not: the U.S. has slipped from 12th to 16th in a global list showing the number of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 holding a college degree. Why the change? And what can be done about it?

By Harrison Howe


America 'Complacent', 'Stuck in Neutral'

America's decline concerning college completion may be alarming, but it may be more about other countries catching up and less about things getting worse in the United States. From 1998 to 2009, the college attainment rate in the U.S. rose by five percent (and two percent, from 39% to 41%, between 2009 and 2011), but Australia, Russia, Ireland, Norway, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom are several countries that have surpassed America on the list. South Korea, Japan and Canada are top-ranked.

Who or what is to blame?

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Washington Post in September: 'I think our country just got complacent. We got self-satisfied.' Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent organization 'committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college' according to its website, said in the same article, 'We are stuck in neutral.'

Recognizing the problem in 2009, President Obama set a goal to put America back on top. But South Korea (63%) has already topped that goal of a 60% attainment rate by 2020, and Japan and Canada are already close (about 56%). Another problem, some say: Obama's plan focused on community colleges (he delivered his speech at Macomb Community College in Michigan) that, while they enroll nearly 40% of all college students, have a graduation rate of 21%.

Can America Get Back on Track?

Lumina Foundation warns that if the U.S. keeps on its current track there could be a shortage of college-educated workers at some point in the future. The foundation says that 800,000 more students must graduate each year between now and 2025 to 'meet the growing needs of the workforce' and keep America competitive in the global economy. Is that possible?

The fact is that many students leave college before earning a degree. According to a 2009 study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the main reason students drop out of college is due to the pressure of balancing school with work and family commitments. And according to in February 2010, nearly 75% of college students are adults juggling work and school.

Some say the answer is having America focus more on 2-year degree and certificate programs rather than 4-year degrees, the latter which is taking students longer to attain. Indeed many other countries, including those rising in the ranks, concentrate more on programs that take two years or less to complete. Perhaps placing more of an emphasis on associate degrees could help to raise the graduation rate at community colleges, increase the number of students attaining a college degree and help propel America to the top of that global list once again.

For those students who are completing college, more than half are taking longer to do so. Why? Education Insider takes a closer look at this growing phenomenon.

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