Small rise in college completion for young adults

To meet Obama’s goal, an estimated 10 million more Americans ages 25 to 34 will need to earn college degrees.

The percentage of young adults earning a college degree has increased slightly but still remains far below the level needed to reach the president’s goal of having the U.S. rank first worldwide in college graduates.

Data being released by the Education Department July 12 says 39.3 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 had earned an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree in 2010. That’s a half-percentage point increase over the previous year.

Rising tuition costs is one of several reasons why more young adults aren’t graduating from college.

In remarks to the National Governors Association July 6, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to urge states and institutions to help the federal government keep costs down. Tuition at four-year public universities increased 15 percent between 2008 and 2010, a rise driven largely by cuts to state funding.

Forty states trimmed their higher education spending in the last year, the department said.

“We’ve made some progress, but the combination of deep state budget cuts and rising tuition prices is pushing an affordable college education out of reach for middle-class families,” Duncan says in prepared remarks.

The United States ranks 16th in the percentage of young adults who have earned a college degree, behind countries including South Korea, Canada, Japan and Russia, according to a 2011 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sixty-three percent of adults ages 25 to 34 have earned a college credential in South Korea, compared to 41 percent in the United States.

While the proportion of young adults in the U.S. with a college degree is about the same as it is for older adults who are now exiting the labor market, there is concern that the number of people with a post-secondary degree isn’t rising fast enough.

The U.S. has 35.7 percent of the world’s college graduates in the 55 -to-64 age bracket, but only 20.5 percent in the 25-to-34 age range.

The percent of all adults in the U.S. with a college degree increased from 34 percent to 41 percent between 1997 and 2009, according to the OECD, and the U.S. ranks fourth globally when all age groups are included. But other countries have made larger leaps, including Canada, where half of adults are college graduates.

“Part of it is that the rest of the world has caught up to us,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I think that we basically up until the last 15 years we were very proud of our post-secondary system. And perhaps complacent about it.”