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United States Loses Lead in College Degree Attainment

June 11, 2014

Historically, the United States has led the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees. In 1999, for example, 28 percent of Americans 25 and older had obtained a bachelor's degree or higher. The international average, based on countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was just 14 percent.

In more recent years, new data published in the Digest of Education Statistics, found that the United States had slipped from first in higher education degree attainment in 1999 to second in 2011 (behind Norway). Other OECD nations' gains in higher education attainment were particularly prevalent among young adults. On average, OECD countries increased their percentage of adults ages 25-34 with at least bachelor's degrees from 18 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2011. During the same time period, the percentage of U.S. younger adults with bachelor's or higher degrees increased only 3 points, from 30 to 33 percent.

Meanwhile, data from the 2014 Condition of Education, produced annually by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found that the gaps in higher education degree attainment between majority and minority populations grew even larger among U.S. residents. Between 1990 and 2013, the difference between White non-Hispanic and African American bachelor's degree or higher attainment rates of adults in the 25- to 29-year-old category widened from 13 percentage points to 20, and the gap between White, non-Hispanics and Hispanics of any race with college degrees widened from 18 to 25 percentage points. These data suggest that any gains made in higher education attainment among U.S. residents were concentrated in White, non-Hispanic populations, as other racial/ethnic groups slipped further behind Whites in percentage with college degrees.

The Condition of Education is an annual report that informs federal and other policy makers about the progress of education in the United States. This year's report provides 42 indicators on trends in American education at all levels, including international attainment comparisons. Free copies of the report are available from the NCES Web site. Additional information about international education comparisons is available from the OECD Web site.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis