In his speech last night, President Obama said, “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.” Not long afterward, a friend emailed to ask if I though this was realistic. Answer: it depends, as these things often do, on exactly what the president means.
President Obama is almost surely referring to educational attainment statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD statistics showing that America has lost its long-standing lead in the percent of adults with a college degree are frequently used in education policy circles as evidence that we need to repair various parts of our leaky education pipeline. (As someone who’s written a lot about low college graduation rates, I was glad the president noted that this is substantially a problem of people starting college but not finishing.) The relevant statistics, if you’re interested, can be found here, by clicking on “Indicator A1: To What Level Have Adults Studied?” and then selecting Table A1.3a on the spreadsheet.
Put another way: As long as we’re the best of the biggest and the biggest of the best, we’ll be okay.