The percentage of young adults earning a college degree has increased slightly but still remains far below the level needed to reach the president's goal of having the U.S. rank first worldwide in college graduates.
Data being released by the Education Department on Thursday says 39.3 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 had earned an associate, bachelor's or graduate degree in 2010. That's a half-percentage point increase over the previous year.
Rising tuition costs is one of several reasons why more young adults aren't graduating from college.
In remarks to the National Governors Association on Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to urge states and institutions to help the federal government keep costs down. Tuition at four-year public universities increased 15 percent between 2008 and 2010, a rise driven largely by cuts to state funding. Forty states trimmed their higher education spending in the last year, the department said.
"We've made some progress, but the combination of deep state budget cuts and rising tuition prices is pushing an affordable college education out of reach for middle-class families," Duncan says in prepared remarks.
The United States ranks 16th in the percentage of young adults who have earned a college degree, behind countries including South Korea, Canada, Japan and Russia, according to a 2011 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Sixty-three percent of adults ages 25 to 34 have earned a college credential in South Korea, compared to 41 percent in the United States.
While the proportion of young adults in the U.S. with a college degree is about the same as it is for older adults who are now exiting the labor market, there is concern that the number of people with a post-secondary degree isn't rising fast enough.
The U.S. has 35.7 percent of the world's college graduates in the 55 -to-64 age bracket, but only 20.5 percent in the 25-to-34 age range.
The percent of all adults in the U.S. with a college degree increased from 34 percent to 41 percent between 1997 and 2009, according to the OECD, and the U.S. ranks fourth globally when all age groups are included. But other countries have made larger leaps, including Canada, where half of adults are college graduates.
"Part of it is that the rest of the world has caught up to us," said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. "I think that we basically up until the last 15 years we were very proud of our post-secondary system. And perhaps complacent about it."
Bailey noted it was only in the last 10 to 15 years that education leaders have had a consistent measure for graduation rates at colleges. He said leaders need to focus especially on low-income and minority students, who have the lowest college completion rates. Community colleges and vocational schools could also play an important role in improving the numbers.
President Barack Obama set a goal shortly after taking office for the U.S. to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by the year 2020. He also called on every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training.
To meet the president's goal, an estimated 10 million more Americans ages 25 to 34 will need to earn a two- or four-year degree, according to figures previously released from the Education Department.
The data released Thursday shows most states will need to make dramatic leaps in order to meet the goal of having 60 percent of the nation's young adults with a college degree. In Florida, there were 816,946 adults ages 25 to 34 with a post-secondary degree. That number will need to increase to at least 1.48 million. In New York, the number will need to rise from 1.3 million to 1.67 million.
Montana saw the largest year to year increase in young college graduates, rising from 37.1 percent in 2009 to 40.3 percent in 2010, but the state also is among the smallest in terms of population. North Dakota is the state with the highest percent of college graduates in the 25 to 34 age range, at 50.8 percent, but again, its population is relatively small compared to other states.
Nearly 69 percent of young adults in the District of Columbia had a college degree.
Education leaders and advocates for increasing college access and completion said the overall increase was not strong enough.
"It is a small jump and it's nothing near what we need to see to be competitive," said James Applegate, vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, which works toward improving college enrollment and completion. The foundation set its own goal of increasing the proportion of the U.S. population with a higher education degree to 60 percent by 2025 in 2007.
"We've got to begin to ramp it up to meet the demands of this economy," Applegate said.