President Obama on Monday will renew his call for the United States to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020, an ambitious goal that senior administration officials say will require 60 percent of all young Americans to possess a college degree, up from 40 percent today.
The United States gave up its spot as the world leader in college graduation rates about 10 years ago, as students in countries like South Korea, Canada and Russia began to surpass their American counterparts. Now the United States ranks 12th among 36 developed nations; a report by the College Board last month warned that the gap threatens to undermine American competitiveness.
Mr. Obama, who shares that view, used his State of the Union address in January to call for the United States to resume its spot as the world leader in graduation rates. He will travel to Austin, Texas, on Monday to reiterate his education plan in a speech at the University of Texas there.
“We’re flatlined, where other countries have passed us by,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Sunday, during a conference call with reporters to preview the president’s remarks. Mr.Duncan called the 2010 goal “the North Star for all our educational efforts.”
Mr. Obama’s trip to Texas will pair policy with politics; before delivering his education speech, he will headline a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Austin. After the speech, he will make a quick trip to Dallas to raise money for Democratic Senate candidates.
And the speech itself will have a political edge; advisers to Mr. Obama say he will use it to remind Americans that, with just a few exceptions, Republicans voted overwhelmingly against legislation adopted by Congress earlier this year to revamp the student loan program by eliminating fees paid to banks that act as middlemen. The measure, which also included a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, was a central component of the president’s education platform. But it was included in the health care overhaul, which Republicans vehemently opposed.
Mr. Obama has made reforming the nation’s education system one of the four pillars of what he calls the ‘’new foundation” for economic recovery (the others are health care reform, energy reform and financial regulatory reform). But after a year in which he has devoted himself intensively to health legislation and the financial regulatory bill, education has received scant attention.
With the midterm election season well underway, Mr. Obama will use his Austin speech to tout what he views as the progress he has made in education, including the student loan legislation, approved by Congress in March as a companion bill to the health care overhaul.
By cutting banks out of the federal student lending program, the law is saving taxpayers more than $60 billion over 10 years, administration officials say. The bill set automatic annual increases in the maximum Pell Grant; Mr. Duncan said more than eight million college students will receive the grants this year, an increase of about 1 million from when Mr. Obama took office.
While close to 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States enroll in college within two years, just 57 percent graduate within six years. Currently, about 16.7 million Americans age 25 to 34 possess college degrees, but the administration calculates that for the United States to resume its place as the world leader in college graduation rates, the nation will have to provide a way for 11 million more young people to enter and complete college by the end of the decade.
If current population trends hold, an estimated 3 million more young adults will graduate during the next 10 years. But that leaves a gap of eight million students. Mr. Obama will argue that closing this gap is critical to creating the kind of educated workforce that will be necessary to create and sustain economic growth over the long term.
“We have to educate our way to a better economy,” Mr. Duncan said.