The Graph Behind President Obama’s Plan for Free Community College

David Leonhardt has a great piece in the New York Times explaining the intellectual origins behind President Obama’s upcoming proposal for two years of free community college. He traces the story back to a 2008 book by economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz called The Race Between Education and Technology.

In the book, Goldin and Katz argue that the United States grew to become the world’s most successful economy because it had the world’s most educated workforce. Unfortunately, we can no longer claim to have the world’s most educated workforce. While we were #1 at getting students into and through a high-school-level education, other countries have done a better job of getting higher proportions of their population into and through postsecondary education.

Graphically, it looks like the figure below, from another Goldin and Katz paper from 2007. It traces the average number of years of schooling attained by American adults, based on what year they were born. The line increases rapidly from left to right for birth cohorts from 1880 to 1950, as more Americans attended and graduated from high school. But starting with the children born around 1950 the pace slowed as the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or GED reached nearly 90 percent.

Educational attainment has slowed

Educational attainment has slowed

That’s where we are today. As we wrote in a recent College Summit paper:

Today, even if every single American adult without a high school diploma went back to school, the average years of schooling could increase by less than half a year. In contrast, there is nearly unlimited upside potential from getting more Americans into and through some form of postsecondary education. Any future increases in educational attainment must come mainly from postsecondary education. 

Hence the President’s proposal. If we’re going to regain our worldwide standing as the leader in educational attainment, we need policies to help more Americans attend and complete higher education.

2 thoughts on “The Graph Behind President Obama’s Plan for Free Community College

  1. Thierry

    I question that more education is what we need. We need a different kind of education. That $15B investment could yield more if we use it to scale some of the models being explored my micro-schools across the country. I am talking about Acton Academy in Austin and the likes of Bricolage in New Orleans.

  2. Sherman Dorn


    Including GEDs distorts the attainment picture. For a variety of reasons, GEDs should not be treated as high school equivalents. If you look just at academic high school credentials, you see the same plateau that begins roughly with the high school class of 1970, but we’ve had a small but noticeable increase in high school graduation in the last 8-10 years. I think you’re basically right with a population-wide perspective; we’re still in the low 80s with respect to high school graduation (excluding GEDs).

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