AUSTIN, Tex. — President Obama, making the case that “education is an economic issue,” on Monday called for the United States to produce an additional eight million college graduates by the year 2020 — enough for the nation to reclaim its title as the country with the highest percentage of college graduates.
The United States gave up its spot as the world leader in college graduation rates about 10 years ago, as students in nations like South Korea, Canada and Russia began to surpass their American counterparts. Now the United States ranks 12th among 36 developed nations in college graduation rates, a trend Mr. Obama said he intends to reverse.
“In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first to twelfth in college graduation rates for young adults,” the president said during a speech at the University of Texas here. “That’s unacceptable, but not irreversible. We need to retake the lead.”
Mr. Obama spoke here as part of a political swing through Texas, where he is attending fundraisers in Austin and Dallas to benefit Democratic candidates. The White House often pairs policy speeches with political events so taxpayers can pick up part of the cost for the president’s travel — common practice with past administrations as well.
In Austin, where Mr. Obama raised more than $1 million for the Democratic National Committee and the Texas Democratic Party, the president told a small lunch crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel that he was happy to be back in the city.
“I like the people, I like the food, I like the music,” he said. “I like that there are a bunch of Democrats here.”
By traveling to Texas, Mr. Obama put himself in the heart of Republican country. All the major office holders in the state are Republicans, and Mr. Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, a one-time Texas governor, lives in Dallas just a few miles away from the Highland Park home of Russell Budd, the prominent plaintiff’s lawyer who is hosting one of the Democratic fundraisers Mr. Obama will headline.
The president’s arrival has put the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill White, in a tough spot. Mr. Obama lost Texas by nearly 1 million votes in the 2008 election, and his popularity here has undoubtedly declined since then. So Mr. White, who is in a tough fight against the incumbent governor, Rick Perry, has let it be known that he has no interest in being seen with Mr. Obama during the president’s visit. (Gov. Perry, though, turned up at the airport in Austin to greet the president with a round of applause on the tarmac and a hearty handshake.)
Mr. Obama was ginger in his criticism of Republicans here. He has been lately using his political speeches to take on Mr. Bush by name, but he did not mention the former president during his speeches in Austin. Indeed, he did not even say the word “Republican,” although he did use his address at the university to remind his audience — and the nation at large — that the “minority party” voted overwhelmingly against legislation adopted by Congress earlier this year to revamp the student loan program by eliminating fees paid to banks that acted as middlemen.
“We went to battle against the lobbyists and a minority party united in their support of an outrageous status quo,” Mr. Obama said. “And we won.”
The measure, which also included a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, was a central component of the president’s education platform.
Mr. Obama has made reforming the nation’s education system one of the four pillars of what he calls the ‘’new foundation” for economic recovery (the others are health care reform, energy reform and financial regulatory reform). But after a year in which he has devoted himself intensively to health legislation and the financial regulatory bill, education has received scant attention.
With the midterm election season well under way, Mr. Obama used his Austin speech to promote what he views as the progress he has made in education, including the student loan legislation, approved by Congress in March as a companion bill to the health care overhaul.
By cutting banks out of the federal student lending program, the law is saving taxpayers more than $60 billion over 10 years, administration officials say. The bill set automatic annual increases in the maximum Pell Grant; Education Secretary Arne Duncan said more than eight million college students will receive the grants this year, an increase of about 1 million from when Mr. Obama took office.
While close to 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States enroll in college within two years, just 57 percent graduate within six years. Currently, about 16.7 million Americans age 25 to 34 possess college degrees, but the administration calculates that for the United States to resume its place as the world leader in college graduation rates, the nation will have to provide a way for 11 million more young people to enter and complete college by the end of the decade.
If current population trends hold, an estimated 3 million more young adults will graduate during the next 10 years. But that leaves a gap of eight million students. Mr. Obama will argue that closing this gap is critical to creating the kind of educated workforce that will be necessary to create and sustain economic growth over the long term.
“We have to educate our way to a better economy,” Mr. Duncan said.