We found this statement to be Half True, though it proved particularly difficult to fact check. Data on worldwide college graduation rates and high school drop out rates are disparate and inconsistent, not least because educational standards vary from country to country, even in the post-industrial world. Many of the articles we examined made generalizations related to the issues Laura Tyson cited, but by and large they failed to back up what they reported with reliable evidence from unbiased sources.
Overall, we found that Tyson didn't have strong grounds on which to say the United States used to rank first in college graduations and currently leads the world in high school drop out rates. But she hit the mark when it came to recent college graduation rates.
No source we checked seemed to dispute the assertion that the United States used to lead the world in college graduation rates. But at the same time, nothing we saw provided concrete support for this part of the statement. A New York TImes article came closest (see sidebar link), quoting the chancellor of the University System of Maryland as saying the United States ranked first in the 1980s. Articles about a College Board study said the same, but a close inspection of the study revealed that the study's authors don't say how long it's been since the United States fell behind other countries, or how they made that determination in the first place.
When Tyson pegged the United States at "number 14, number 15" in the world, she probably meant it as a ballpark figure. According to the nonpartisan Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compiles statistics on a range of global economic and social issues, the United States ranked 14th among 22 countries surveyed in terms of the percentage of adults with college degrees as of 2007. The College Board study -- as cited in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and elsewhere (see sidebar links) -- called the United States number 12 in the same statistic. The difference is small enough that Tyson's ballpark figure appears true.
Tyson's claim that the United States leads the world in high school dropout rates was difficult to verify with our modest resources. Plenty of stories we read talked about the shrinking graduation rates in America's high schools, and most sources put the dropout rate at about 30 percent. The OECD says the U.S. high school graduation rate is below the OECD average of 82 percent, but not at rock bottom -- this statistic, however, doesn't consider youths who don't complete high school. Other data was far too thin to make a definitive call.
-- By Derek Hawkins, on behalf of the NewsTrust Editors