The United States may be No. 1 in some things but ranks an unimpressive 14th in higher educational attainment among young adults — and rising tuition costs might not be to blame.
Though the USA has moved up one spot since last year, the newly released international comparison shows only 42 percent of the country's 25-to-34-year-olds have attained higher education, far behind top-ranked South Korea's 65 percent.
This was not always the case. In 1995, the United States led the world in college attainment levels, according to data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
Its latest analysis of data from 37 countries, set to be released today, shows less U.S. upward mobility in higher education attainment than in many other countries, said Andreas Schleicher, education policy adviser to OECD's secretary-general. Upward mobility means each generation is better educated than the last.
In Poland, more than 60 percent of young people today are better educated than their parents. In the United States, a little more than 20 percent could make a similar claim.
“Because of the strong links between education, earnings, wealth, and the well-being of individuals and nations, we find that education is a very powerful lever to combat inequalities,” Schleicher said. “But what we also see is that the chances that someone young today will be in higher education, if his or her family did not complete high school, are a lot lower than if you have parents that are well educated.”
Though both Gov. Rick Perry and President Barack Obama have pushed for lower college tuition rates, the OECD found that high tuition costs alone did not necessarily hinder students from seeking higher educational attainment than their parents reached.
Schleicher said countries like the United Kingdom use tuition to finance an even larger portion of their higher education system than in the United States. But, he said, U.K. students have better access to loans, the repayment of which is contingent on their earnings after college.
He said the benefits of a better educated populace outweigh the costs of loan defaults because better educated citizens often pay more income taxes and rely less on social welfare.
Mari Aguirre Rodriguez, executive director of Generation TX San Antonio, which works to promote a college-attending culture, said that while financial aid is a factor, especially for low-income students, “navigating the college process is the other huge barrier to ... enrollment and success.”
For some students, preparing for the SAT, taking tougher courses in high school and filling out applications can be just as important a barrier, she said.
“I don't think there's one magic answer” to improve college attainment, said Eyra Perez, executive director of the San Antonio Education Partnership, which operates the Café College resource center. “If there was, we would have found it already.”