Published on Wednesday, May 17, 2000 in the Boston Globe
US Falls Behind In College Graduate Rate
by David Abel
The United States no longer leads the world in the proportion of students who graduate from college, the first time since such international statistics have been compiled.
The graduation rate in Norway, Britain, and the Netherlands has surpassed the United States's 33 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which pooled data from its 29 democratic countries and 16 nonmember countries.
''We're surprised that the change was so dramatic,'' said Andreas Schleicher, the principal administrator of the organization's Center for Educational Research and Innovation. ''But it's not so much that the United States has slipped. It's that other countries have raised their standards.''
Still, the United States has not kept pace in terms of the precipitous rise in students graduating from colleges. Between 1990 and 1997, enrollment rose by more than 20 percent in all but five of the countries surveyed. And in eight of the countries, the rate jumped by 50 percent.
The Paris-based organization provides a forum for its member countries to discuss and develop economic and social policies.
Compared to the 3 percent increase in the United States, for example, the graduation rate in Britain rose from below 20 percent in the early 1990s to its current 35 percent. In the Netherlands, 34.6 percent of the student population graduate from college, and in Norway the figure has risen to 37.1 percent.
One of the reasons the United States has fallen behind, Schleicher and others say, is because the country has lagged in improving its pre-university education system.
In a similar report in 1998, the organization found the United States trailed 22 other countries in the number of its students graduating from high school.
Although the United States spends $2,000 more per student at the middle-and-high school level than the organization's average, Austria and Switzerland spend about $1,000 and $2,000 more respectively.
Furthermore, the United States pays teachers less per capita than all but three of the countries surveyed and teachers work 300 hours longer than the organization's average.
''The earning potential for teachers compared to other university graduates in the United States just hasn't kept up,'' Schleicher said. ''That makes it harder for schools to find the best and the brightest to teach.''
Rebutting the report's rankings, Eugene Owen, director of international programs at the National Center for Education statistics, said the organization didn't include the many US students who attend two-year community colleges and that many technical institutes previously not counted are now considered colleges.
Schleicher, however, said the rankings would have only pushed the United States further back in the pack if community colleges were included. Only 9.2 percent of the US student population graduate from the two-year colleges; whereas, 11.2 percent is the average in the countries surveyed.
''One of the problems we find in the United States is that students in low-income families tend to overestimate the cost of college,'' said Alan Ginsburg, director of planning and evaluation at the Department of Education.
The Clinton administration, however, has made strides in trying to open the door of academia to more students, pushing legislation through Congress that has more than doubled the amount of money available for financial aid in the past eight years.
Ginsburg said at least two proposals in the president's 2001 budget seek to increase the aid. They are a $30 billion tax cut that would make college tuition deductible and a $1 billion package of grants, loans, and work study money.
Still, the United States spends far more on college-level education, $17,466 per student, or more than twice the organization's average and higher than any country surveyed.
There are several ways for the United States to boost its graduate rate, said Julie Reuben, a professor specializing in history of higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
There must be a new emphasis on improving the transfer rate from community colleges to four-year institutions, a commitment by state and federal governments to increase the money they give to universities, and new a policy on the way financial aid is distributed to students, she said.
''There are some pretty dismal aspects of our system, especially the transfer rate from two-year institutions,'' Reuben said. ''But the answer also requires our educational institutions figure out how to contain their costs.''
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company