One in four Americans doesn't earn a high school diploma on time. The nation lags internationally in the percentage of young people who complete college. And for future college students, tuition costs are climbing at a double-digit clip. If the U.S. wants to remain globally competitive, those trends must be reversed before the country is set back decades, perhaps irrevocably.
The campaign promise:
President Barack Obama promised to take the nation's high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the year 2020, up from 78 percent, to make the U.S. No. 1 in the share of its population who are college graduates, and to keep tuition bills down.
"So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury; it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford." — State of the Union address, Jan. 24, 2012.
Obama's path is rocky at best.
In the Republican-led House, tea partyers are resistant to new spending. Congress overall seems to be in a perpetual budget standoff. For instance, the bipartisan law governing kindergarten-to-high school education, No Child Left Behind, expired in 2007 and Congress has not replaced it.
It's not impossible for Obama to keep his promises, just very difficult.
One study found the country could reach Obama's goal of 90 percent high school graduation rates by 2020 if students continue improving at their current pace — hardly a guaranteed thing.
Obama's goal of making the U.S. first in the percentage of its people who are college graduates is also a distinct long shot.
The U.S. is the only developed country where those retiring from the workforce are more educated than those entering it, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among workers 25 to 34 years old, the United States ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of those who have higher education. The U.S. trails leader South Korea by 20 percentage points in the share of college graduates among young people.
Obama has increased money for Pell Grants for college students from $19 billion in 2009 to a proposed $36 billion in 2013. The number of students receiving them has grown from about 6 million to 10 million.
Yet those grants now cover less than a third of the cost of a four-year public college. In 1980, they covered 69 percent.
The culprit is tuition bills that climb every year. State-supported schools have cut financing in tough times and private colleges have struggled to get by while their endowments recover from the recession. Some 24 state budgets for colleges are smaller than they were in 2008, the National Association of State Budget Officers says.
During his campaign, Obama proposed vague rewards for colleges that keep costs down and directly threatened to pull back federal money to schools that increase costs rapidly. That's not happening.
The Education Department this year created an online site showing students' costs at specific colleges and universities after financial aid, price increases and graduation rates in the hopes of helping parents and students make better choices. The thinking was that schools with steep cost increases would be embarrassed when students compared them with other schools.
Yet price tags are still rising.