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We're Already on Top, Mr. President

In his speech last night to Congress, President Barack Obama promised that his education policies would help more people attend college, ensuring that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

But guess what? We're already there.

Data compiled by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, affiliated with the European Union, show that the United States leads the world, with roughly 30% of its adult population holding 4-year college degrees. NSF's 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators, the gold standard for such statistics, puts the United States atop a bar graph of 27 industrialized countries among adults aged 25 to 64, followed closely by Norway and Israel. OECD's Education at a Glance 2008 shows Norway barely ahead of the United States and Israel. In both rankings, the trio are head and shoulders above the rest of the E.U. countries.

So what is Obama worried about? "The concern is with younger people," says Thomas Snyder of the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C.

Over the past 2 decades, many countries have poured money into their universities on the assumption that a well-educated population is essential for long-term economic and national security. As a result, several nations now top the United States in the percentage of younger adults (ages 25 to 34) with college degrees. "So eventually they might win out," says NSF's Joan Burelli. However, Burelli notes that historically it's more common in the United States for older adults to return to college than it is elsewhere. That suggests the younger adult cohort may not be the best measure of educational attainment for the entire population.

With all the challenges that the country is facing, Obama might welcome the news that his goal of creating the best-educated populace is already in his grasp.