Defying commentators, critics, and prognosticators, the U.S. has already performed quite well against the other nations competing for the 2014 World Cup. Yes, the competition on the field only started last Thursday and the Yanks have yet to kick things off today, but the U.S. is beating most of the competition in another competition: college attainment.
Among the 32 teams competing in Brazil, the United States ranks third for the percentage of adults with a 2-year or 4-year college degree.
It may look like America has trounced the competition, but there are two important facts that put these figures into perspective.
In 1990 the United States soccer team qualified for its first World Cup after a 40-year drought. Though it failed to win a game and was sent home, the U.S. was ranked first in the world in four-year degree attainment among young adults. Since that time, our men’s national soccer team has steadily improved, but our college attainment rates have not. The United States now ranks 11th among developed nations for young adults with college degrees.
The U.S. may compare favorably to other World Cup countries, but the data still mean that only 2 in 5 adults have some kind of a college degree. In fact, just 59 percent of students at a 4-year college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years – not to mention that black and Latino students complete at even lower rates (40 percent and 52 percent, respectively). Ranking well relative to other countries doesn’t mean much when we are leaving so many of our students behind.
Third place is not good enough. More important to our country’s well-being than winning the World Cup is whether we have an educated population prepared to face the challenges of the new global economy. Higher education leaders and policymakers should look to the example of the colleges and universities across the country that are leading the way to improve student success and proving that low graduation rates are not inevitable.
The expectations of American soccer supporters have risen steadily since 1990, and millions are tuning in to watch our boys play in Brazil. It’s time that we raise our expectations about college attainment and the equity in attainment levels.
Only then can the United States realize its gooooooaaaaals of being first in the world on the fútbol pitch and in degrees.