09/13/2011 11:04 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

U.S. Losing Worldwide Edge In Higher Ed: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Study

By CHRISTINE AMARIO, Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- The United States is losing its advantage in the global talent pool as the number of adults gaining college degrees in countries such as China and South Korea increases rapidly, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

One in four adults with a higher education degree is in the U.S., but industrialized and emerging economies are catching up. China has 12 percent of all college graduates, but among young adults, its share is much higher. Of those ages 25 to 34, 18.3 percent of college graduates are in China compared to 20.5 percent in the U.S., the study found.

"Participation hasn't increased at the speed it has at other countries," said Andreas Schleicher, head of indicators and analysis at the OECD education directorate. "When you look at the young population, the picture looks quite different already."

The report being published Tuesday examined data from the 34 emerging and developed nations that make up the OECD. It comes nearly a year after results from the Program for International Student Assessment were released, showing U.S. students trailing behind countries such as South Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong and Shanghai in China. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

The results of that test brought about renewed calls for education reform in the United States.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said it was a "wake-up call" for the country, which has reviewed the practices of top-performing nations at a conference last spring. The new findings are likely to be seen as another piece of evidence indicating U.S. students are falling behind other countries.

"It shows the U.S. is asleep at the switch and not really paying attention to what is happening around the rest of the world," said Gary Phillips, vice president and chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research.

President Barack Obama has called on the United States to take steps to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.

The new report notes the U.S. still ranks among the top five in terms of the percent of the adult population with a higher education degree. However, it ranks 15th among 34 OECD countries in college attainment among 25 to 34-year-olds. The rate of graduation from a two-year college, or higher, has increased from 42 to 49 percent between 2000 and 2009.

"But here too the pace of the expansion has been more rapid in many other countries," the report states, noting the graduation rate has increased from 37 percent to 47 percent on average across the 34 emerging and developed OECD countries.

In the United States, college graduates can expect to earn 79 percent more than someone with a high school degree -- higher than in most countries examined. Likewise, those who have the least education face higher prospects of unemployment, particularly in tough economic times.

"The recession has amplified the impact of education on outcomes," Schleicher said in a conference call with journalists Monday.

While the benefits of education are evident, the path to getting there is expensive. The U.S. had the highest tuition fees among OECD countries, with students expected to spend $70,000 in direct costs and $39,000 in lost earning while studying -- an overall investment of more than $100,000, compared to an average of $50,000 across OECD countries.

Meanwhile, the percentage of public spending on higher education in the U.S. that goes toward subsidies such as scholarships, grants and loans is about the same as the other countries examined, even while the tuition costs are considerably higher.

The report also notes that many U.S. students are academically unprepared for the challenges of higher education, with 42 percent of 15-year-olds scoring less than a proficiency level three in the PISA reading exam, compared to 17.3 percent of students in Shanghai.

"We are not giving a good college preparatory program to most of our students," said Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also noted the high number of students in the U.S. who start but never finish a college degree.

He said three key elements to boosting the number of college graduates is to better prepare students for college or a career, make a higher education degree affordable and have colleges pay closer attention to their attrition rates.