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The famous Mexican comedian, Cantinflas, appeared in over 100 films, including the original Around the World in 80 Days. In probably 99 of those he engaged in a routine where he would (usually when caught red-handed) put together the most improbable of arguments.  When the straight man pointed out the fallacies of his case, Cantinflas would immediately agree by saying, “ahi está el detalle” (literal translationthat’s the detail”) or as Paul Harvey would say in conclusion of his radio broadcast “And that’s the rest of the story.” No matter how often Cantinflas played the bit, I would invariably laugh. Ahi está el detalle now describes what is missing in the structure of American Higher Education and is not a laughing matter.

I have been observing the Bologna Process for a long time and was doubtful it would ever work (see my previous blog “The Bologna Process Succeeds?”).  Presently, the United States has only begun to become aware of the Bologna Process goals. A new book by the distinguished scholar Paul Gaston[i] argues persuasively that the United States needs to adopt the Bologna Process principles. Another distinguished scholar, Clifford Adelman[ii] has been following the process for years and also promotes the Bologna Process principles.

I do not claim these authors’ level of familiarity with the Bologna Process. However, their observations, while cognizant of it, have not yet recognized one of Bologna’s innovation as crucial. This “ahi está el detalle” is the innovation of the 3-year baccalaureate presently lacking in the United States and which has been adopted by 95% of the countries participating in Bologna, most of them since 2002.

The lack of the 3-year degree may by itself  explain why the United States is now ranked 12th in percent of citizens holding college degrees. A decade ago the United States was ranked 1st.

Examining those countries that exceed us in college degree holders, I was unable to detect any remarkable increase in their high school graduation rates compared to the United States. It is true that high school graduation in the United States has remained at more or less 70% level over the past decade. Yet, according to OECD “levels in Germany, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, and Switzerland have (also) been stable over the last decade.”[iii] Germany, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Korea and Norway have for the last 20 years, graduation rates of 90% of their high school students having increased 7% since 1995. This increase, without a parallel increase in college enrollment, would not explain our relative decline either.

I cannot discern a significant increase in college enrollment as well. In some cases, such as Australia and New Zealand, the number of students enrolling in higher education places these countries in the number one and two positions respectively. But that is misleading because as OECD explains. “High proportions of international students influence entry rate levels. In Australia and New Zealand, the impact of international students is so huge that their entry rate dropped significantly when international students were excluded, causing them to lose their top two ranking positions.”[iv]

Our current catch-up policy efforts are being directed toward a multitude of goals, all of them important and significant, but not in themselves explanatory of our falling behind. The College Board has created a Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, which has set forth 10 goals in order to bring the U.S. back from the brink. They range from lowering tuition to improving early childhood education to reducing the large attrition rate. Each of these goals will provide positive results, but they will not give us the push we need in the short term.

A clue as to what has set us back can be found in a working paper presented earlier this year to the National Bureau of Economic Research by John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner.[v] In this paper, the authors present evidence that “Time to completion of the baccalaureate degree has increased markedly in the United States over the last three decades…” Students in the United States are taking longer to finish the traditional 4-year degree, an average of 4.97 years, or one full school-year longer. This reduces the total number of graduates by 20 percent. The number of students completing in 4 years fell 14.6 percent to 26.1 percent. Those most affected by this trend are those who begin their postsecondary education at public colleges outside the most selective universities and amongst low-income students. These are the same students who are the most rapidly growing segment of our college-going population.

So, while members of the Bologna Process are effectively graduating students in three years, 25 percent faster than us, we are taking 20 percent longer than our 4-year model to achieve the same. And that 45 percent difference is the primary reason we fell behind. I can hear Cantinflas describing the 3-year option, which is missing in American Higher Education as, “Ahi está el detalle”


[i] Gaston, Paul L The Challenge of Bologna: What the United States Higher Education Has to Learn from Europe and Why It Matters that we learn it. 2010 Stylus Publishing, Sterling, Virginia

[ii] Clifford Adelman has written on this topic in several publications such as “The Bologna club: What U.S. Higher Education can learn from a decade of European reconstruction” (2008) Institute for Higher Education Policy, Washington, D.C.

[iii] Education at a Glance 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. You may retrieve a copy at my website:

[iv] Iden.

[v] Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degree in the United States by John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner NBER Working Paper No. 15892 April 2010 You may retrieve a copy at my website:

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