Speaking at the University of Texas today, President Obama told an audience of 3,500 college students that America has failed them.
The president visited the Austin, Texas, campus to outline his goal to raise the nation's college graduation rate to 60 percent in just 10 years, adding at least 8 million graduates.
"In a single generation, we've fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults," Obama said, citing recent statistics showing the United States ranks 12th globally in the percentage of a young adults who hold at least an associate's degree.
Nationwide, 40.4 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds held such degrees in 2007, falling far short of Canada's 55.8 percent, as well as South Korea and Russia, both of which had 55.5 percent rates, according to statistics from the College Board. Full global rankings can be found at the end of this article.
Duncan: U.S. Has Been 'Out-Worked' By Other Countries
How did we get to this point? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told ABC News today that complacency is partly to blame.
"We got a little self-satisfied and other countries have, I think, out-worked us," Duncan said. "They have out-invested. They have taken this more seriously, and I think this is a wake-up call."
Though the number has been slowly rising in the United States in recent years, up from 38.1 percent in 2000, the nation still has a long way to go to meet the president's goal.
"We can retake the lead," Obama said today. "The single most important thing we can do is to make sure we've got a world-class education system for everybody. That is a prerequisite for prosperity."
While nearly 70 percent of high school students enroll in college, only 57 percent actually graduate. Among minorities and low-income students, less than half get a college diploma.
College Students Arrive on Campus Ill-Prepared
Of those that do make it to campus, they're often unprepared for college-level coursework. Some education experts blame high schools for failing to prepare students.
"Large percentages show up needing some kind of remediation," said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "[Remediation] in reading, in mathematics, in courses that colleges would like to think had been done in high schools."
To meet the goal of reclaiming the top college graduation rate worldwide in 2020, Obama is pushing to:
Make college more affordable by increasing financial aid and student loans. Help students complete their course of studies. Ensure graduating students are prepared to turn diplomas into paychecks.
"Is it an ambitious goal? Absolutely. Is it going to take hard work? Absolutely," said Duncan. "But frankly, failure is not an option here."
The education secretary said that everything is on the table to meet the goal, from adding days to the school year to hiring an army of new teachers.
Still, it's a challenge not just in the classroom but in the ledger books. None of those steps come cheaply, and the Obama administration could have a hard time selling its proposals to cash-strapped states.
Graduates by Nation
Percentage of 25- to 34-Year-Olds with an Associate Degree or Higher, 2007
Russian Federation 55.5%
New Zealand 47.3%
United States 40.4%
United Kingdom 37.1%
Slovak Republic 17.5%
Czech Republic 15.5%