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And I'm Michele Norris.

A new report warns that the U.S. is falling well behind other countries in the proportion of adults with a college education. Researchers say the decline could have devastating economic and social consequences for the country.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The statistics compiled by the study titled "The College Completion Agenda," are sobering: no more than 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a college degree. And even though most high school graduates enroll in college, only about half earn an undergraduate degree within six years. The completion rate drops even more in community colleges, where only about a quarter earn a degree in three years or less.

Mr. GASTON CAPERTON (President, College Board): It's a very serious problem. People like never before in the United States understand how critical it is to get an education.

SANCHEZ: Gaston Caperton is president of the College Board, which commissioned the study. He says the United States is losing its competitive advantage in the world because it's not producing nearly enough people with the level of education necessary to keep high-paying jobs from leaving the country. The study doesn't single out any one cause, in part because there are so many, but it does cite students' transition from high school to college as a major issue. For example, the commission found that more than a quarter of college students require remedial classes in reading, writing and math. Community colleges know this all too well.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, so then you would say you have one class left to graduate.

SANCHEZ: At Northern Virginia Community College this time of year, counselors are booked solid advising students about fall courses. Mark Mannheimer says it's not just academics, though. There are other reasons students struggle. The cost of college keeps climbing and many students just can't juggle school, family and work.

Mr. MARK MANNHEIMER (Counselor, Northern Virginia Community College): Work can't certainly be the thing that suffers because that's what's generating the money, so it ends up being academics that falls off. And as soon as students start to receive lower marks we see that students kind of lose faith quickly and eventually they just stop enrolling.

SANCHEZ: Every year students' needs get more expensive and more complex, says financial aid counselor Samaritan Johnson.

Mr. SAMARITAN JOHNSON (Financial Aid Counselor): From �teenagers to also single moms, or families or older people that just lost their jobs that are coming back to try to get a degree, so we deal with a lot of students.

Mr. CAPERTON: The concerns of those counselors are real and I agree with them.

SANCHEZ: But, says the College Board's Gaston Caperton, the main reason the United States now ranks 12th in college completion among 36 developed nations is because from kindergarten to high school, students are not getting a quality education. And even if they do make it to college, they often lack focus.

Mr. CAPERTON: Too many students go to community college because they don't know what else to do.

SANCHEZ: The study makes 10 recommendations that Caperton says could help repair the education pipeline: by expanding pre-school, making K-12 education more rigorous, raising the quality of teachers and making college more accessible and affordable. Caperton says the consensus now is that this nation's education deficit is no less urgent or threatening than the economic crisis we're in.

Mr. CAPERTON: If you want to have a good job and a good income, you have to get a better education. And people are deeply concerned about this.

SANCHEZ: Which is not to say that this can't become one more study gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, says Caperton. He's betting it won't.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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