updated 11/4/2009 12:05:45 AM ET 2009-11-04T05:05:45

The United States spends more money than any other country, and its elite institutions are the world's best. But overall the system is wasteful, fails too many — and is falling behind other countries.

No, the topic isn't health care — it's higher education.

The latest stinging report came last week from a state colleges group arguing the United States isn't producing enough college graduates, especially in science. Similar gloominess emanates from business groups and even the Obama administration, whose top education goals include again leading the world in proportion of college graduates.

But is it really fair to try to rank American higher education against the rest of the world?

And if you do, is the once-vaunted U.S. system really losing its edge?

A few contrarian experts say no. The most vocal is Cliff Adelman, a sharp-tongued data hound who after a long and influential career in government now works at the independent Institute for Higher Education Policy, where he feels freer to rock the boat.

"We've got a country full of masochists, people who love to be flagellated, they want to hear a bad story," Adelman said in an interview. "We hesitate to call it propaganda, but it is."

For years, Adelman has railed against tables showing other developed countries bounding ahead in college achievement. In a new paper Wednesday, he lays out his case against the most commonly cited international higher education comparisons, which typically cite annual reports from the Organization of Economic and Comparative Development, a consortium of the world's leading industrialized countries.

It's not that Adelman and like-minded experts, including Art Hauptman, a prominent independent education consultant, think American higher education is perfect.

It's just doing a better job than you might believe from the spin put on the annual OECD benchmarks.

Adelman's beef falls into three main categories.

Graduation rates
The conventional wisdom:
American higher education is good at getting students into college — and terrible at getting them out with a degree. A figure commonly cited from the OECD report is that only 56 percent of U.S. college students graduate.

Adelman: That number is deeply misleading: It measures how many American college students have a degree within six years only if they graduate from the same school where they started. It doesn't capture students who transfer, which is much more common at American colleges than elsewhere.

How many U.S. students graduate somewhere within six years? An earlier government study estimated 63 percent — not great, but about in line with the highest-ranked developed countries. However, that study is buried in an index to the OECD report. In the most commonly cited OECD figures, only the United States is graded on the number who graduate where they started. Other countries are measured systemwide.

"They like to beat up the big guy," Adelman said of the OECD numbers. "It's a rhetorical race to the bottom."

The verdict: Adelman's right — the comparison is unfair to the United States. Still, 63 percent leaves much room for improvement.

A well-educated population?
Conventional wisdom:
The influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation laments the United States' fall from first to 10th in college completion rates. The White House says President Obama "is committed to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020." Several reports have warned U.S. higher education attainment is on track to peak with the baby boomers.

Adelman: The United States does very well producing bachelor's degrees. In that category, he notes in the published 2008 OECD report the United States had the highest rate in every age group except 25-34, where it was No. 2.

The U.S. isn't as successful producing associate's, or two-year degrees, and that drags down the overall degree completion rate. In the 25-34 age group the United States falls to No. 10, nine spots below South Korea, as the Gates Foundation and others note.

But is it fair to compare U.S. associate's degrees with their counterparts elsewhere? In other countries, specialized institutions focus on 2-year degrees. In the United States, most are awarded by community colleges, whose many jobs include preparing students to transfer to bachelor's programs. Students who transfer often don't even bother to collect an associate's degree they've earned.

The verdict: In fact, the United States isn't doing quite so well with bachelor's degrees. The OECD now acknowledges the 2008 figures Adelman cites ranking the United States No. 2 were faulty. In the latest figures — now available from 2009 — the United States is still first or second in every older age group. But in the 25-34 age group, it falls to No. 6 in the world, suggesting we haven't done as well lately.

That is a problem, but it doesn't necessarily mean college attainment will peak with the baby boomers. Only 31 percent of young American adults have a 4-year degree, but Hauptman notes it's much easier for older American adults to eventually finish a degree. The baby boomers picked up more degrees over time, and by the time current young adults are 55, they'll likely be back at or near the top.

Adelman also offers an important reminder that quantity isn't everything. Any country could ramp up its number of degrees. Germany has relatively few bachelor's degrees but a very successful economy.

Value of comparisons
Conventional wisdom:
Comparing the United States to other countries reveals our weaknesses and suggests practices elsewhere we could imitate.

Adelman: The data are so flawed — definitions of everything from "student" to "bachelor's degree" vary so widely — that comparisons only confuse and fuel political agendas. And U.S. demographics are so different that problems here will require unique solutions. Diverse, growing countries like the United States shouldn't imitate shrinking, homogenous ones like Finland or South Korea.

The verdict: A number of experts agree with Adelman that rankings are overrated, and often abused for political reasons.

"The policymakers often highlight the negatives, because you need a crisis in order to galvanize political action," said Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Still, he says, even flawed comparisons can highlight important issues. And Whitehurst says they do show something true and important — that the United States is struggling to move students through the system on a mass scale.

"You can't just sit around and wait for the perfect measurement to come along, particularly if you know almost by definition there will never be one," said Kevin Carey, a policy expert at the independent Education Trust, who shares Adelman's concerns about the OECD's shortcomings but isn't quite prepared to toss aside the whole enterprise of comparing countries.

"People pick and choose statistics based on the case they're making," Carey said. "Welcome to the world."

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