The Hechinger Report has decided to challenge the long-held notion that America’s universities are the best in the world. What if the nation’s 5,000 institutions of higher education, as a whole, have fallen behind their international peers? What if they could be doing significantly better? As President Barack Obama has repeatedly noted, the U.S. has slipped from first to ninth in the world when it comes to the percentage of our population aged 25-34 with postsecondary credentials. We’re at 42 percent. South Korea—the world champ—is at 58 percent.

The Hechinger Report is planning an eight-part series on international higher education that focuses on eight countries/regions: Canada, China, Europe, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Japan and South Korea. We intend to spark a national conversation about U.S. higher education that starts right here on this blog.

While the U.S. is home to Harvard and Yale, MIT and Stanford and boasts 17 of the top 20 universities in the world, these institutions enroll in a very thin slice of America’s 20 million college students. Far more attend public and private two-year and four-year colleges of often-questionable quality. The majority do not graduate.

Has the rest of the world caught up to or even surpassed U.S. higher education?  As Obama and others have said, U.S. economic competitiveness is now clearly at stake. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out that there are two million jobs in America that employers can’t presently fill because prospective employees lack the requisite skills and training.

What lessons can we learn from other countries who are getting more of their students to and through college than the U.S. does?  How are other countries increasing access and success among historically underrepresented groups? How are they maintaining quality without increasing costs, all the while focusing on what students actually learn and are able to do?