For the U.S. higher education system, it may be a case of perception being better than reality, at least when it comes to how we compare to the rest of the world.

Survey after survey seem to confirm the U.S. as having the best universities on the planet, and we continue to attract students from around the globe, whether it be to community colleges in Montana or to graduate schools in Massachusetts.

Yet despite this sterling reputation, noted dramatically in Financial Times or Economist global surveys, and echoed loudly in the more provincial rankings of U.S. News & World Report, we have quietly been regressing when it comes to the bread and butter of any undergraduate institution – bachelor’s degree completion rates. In fact, according to the most recent Education at a Glance, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 26th out of 27 industrialized democracies in this key measure, outranking only Italy.

The OECD reports the average bachelor’s degree completion rate in those 27 countries to be 68.8%, with Japan the highest at 90.1% and Denmark ranked 2nd at 80.5. Alarmingly, the U.S. sits at 56%, surpassing only Italy’s meager 45.3%, and sitting just below New Zealand and Hungary.

Nothing against Kiwis or Hungarians, but can we as a nation afford to have such poor performance in comparison to our peers around the world? Of course, the answer is a resounding “no,” and President Obama has set forth an ambitious goal that, by the year 2020, we would “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

To get from here to there, we must have a commitment not only by our politicians, but by all stakeholders in higher education, including parents. Will we rise to the challenge and, in doing so will we help lift our students and those who educate them along with us? There is plenty of evidence that programs such as the Freshman Year Experience, residential settings such as limited-in-size “learning communities,” and a greater reliance on student peer-to-peer support can be effective in raising rates of persistence and ultimately, graduation.

Student achievement leading to college completion is an important goal for College Parents of America, and we believe that the same engagement strategies that help students to learn can also help them to persist and graduate. What strategies are working at your student’s school, or within your own family? Please share your institutional or personal knowledge of best practices with your peers on Hoverings: A Blog for Current and Future College Parents at www.collegeparents.org.

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