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How America’s Falling Share of Global College Graduates Threatens Future Economic Competitiveness

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The United States’ share of global college graduates fell substantially in the first decade of the 21st century and stands to drop even more by 2020 as developing economies in China and India have graduated more college students, presenting challenges for American workers’ ability to remain competitive in a global economy in the future. The U.S. share of college graduates fell from nearly one-in-four to just more than one-in-five from 2000 to 2010, according to “The Competition That Really Matters,” a report from the Center for American Progress and The Center for the Next Generation:

From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. share of college graduates fell to 21% of the world’s total from 24%, while China’s share climbed to 11% from 9%. India’s rose more than half a percentage point to 7%. Based on current demographic and college enrollment trends, we can project where each country will be by 2020: the U.S. share of the world’s college graduates will fall below 18% while China’s and India’s will rise to more than 13% and nearly 8% respectively.

Share of world college graduatesIndia and China aren’t just closing the gap in overall graduates, they’re also making huge strides in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to the report, the annual number of U.S. STEM graduates from four-year colleges and universities increased by 24 percent from 2000 to 2008. In China, the annual increase was 218 percent, and in India, the number of STEM degrees awarded each year tripled from 1999 to 2006.

“The fact that other countries are graduating more and more of their people and giving them a good education, that, in and of itself, is certainly not a negative,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who helped unveil the report today, told ThinkProgress. “It’s good for their countries, it’s good for the global economy when there’s a stronger middle class.”

But, Markell said, the falling share of college graduates is indicative of the more competitive global economy, and, as the report notes, the U.S. faces problems in the education sector that could harm future American competitiveness. Only half of American students receive early childhood education, for instance, and the nation has no strategy for improving enrollment, even as evidence shows that those programs increase educational success. Meanwhile, rising levels of income inequality and poverty are broadening America’s education gap, further threatening the nation’s overall educational success and future competitiveness.

As states and localities crushed by the Great Recession are forcing through education cuts at all levels in the United States, other countries — including China and India — are taking major steps to increase educational attainment among their lower- and middle-classes. By creating stronger national standards, improving teacher quality, and making investments into early childhood education and other programs, the report says, the U.S. can follow suit and remain competitive in the future.

“What we have to recognize is that just because we’ve been number one in the past doesn’t mean we’ll be number one in the future,” Markell said. “We have to truly recognize that investments in early childhood and K-12 and higher education and investments in human capital generally are one of the surefire ways to lead to long-term prosperity. … We’re in a new world now, we’re in a new generation, and if you don’t maintain that commitment and that covenant with each new generation of Americans, I’m very concerned about the consequences,” Markell said. “You can’t afford not to make these investments in the future.”

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