Report warns of lack of graduates to replace baby-boomers as nation slips in league tables, writes Jon Marcus.
America's global competitiveness is being threatened by a failure among universities to educate those needed to replace baby-boomers in high-level jobs who have reached retirement age, an independent report says.
The latest "national report card", which is issued every two years by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says the US has fallen behind other nations in the race to educate its workforce, and the problem is being exacerbated by the rising cost of higher education.
James Hunt Jr, chairman of the centre's board of directors and former governor of North Carolina, said the findings "challenge the notion that the American higher education system is still the best in the world.
"Our country must not remain satisfied with past achievements or reputation. We can and must mobilise our nation, our states and our colleges for success in this global competition."
The release later this month of long-awaited recommendations from the US Government's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which Governor Hunt also chairs, is expected to spark a debate.
This year's report card was given extra gravity by the presence of Margaret Spellings, the Education Secretary, who appointed the commission.
Universities have been successful in softening the harsh criticism of them in earlier drafts of the commission's recommendations. But there is growing evidence that US higher education is losing its international dominance.
These latest findings show that young Americans are falling behind their counterparts in other countries in terms of the level of university enrolment and completion rates. While the US is still a world leader in the proportion of people aged 35 to 64 with degrees, it comes seventh in this measure for 25 to 34-year-olds.
Several nations have overtaken the US in access, and in the most recent international comparisons the US ranks in the bottom half in terms of university completion rates.
In these areas in particular, Governor Hunt said, "the US has made little or no progress, while other countries have made substantial gains".
Meanwhile, baby-boomers will soon start to retire, and "our country could experience a drop-off in college-trained workers just as the rest of the world is gearing up to surpass us in higher education".
Patrick Callan, president of the centre, said: "Other nations have approached the need for higher rates of college participation and completion with a sense of urgency that we have not yet seen in the US."
The centre's report card also grades each of the 50 states on the quality of its public universities. It has become an influential means of comparing universities and a powerful tool for critics of them at the state level.