Education At A Glance 2012: OECD Report Finds U.S. Lags Behind Other Countries In Higher Education Attainment Rate

U.S. Students Lag, Struggle More Than Foreign Peers To Surpass Parents

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 Education at a Glance report has found that while the U.S. boasts high education attainment levels overall, it lags behind other countries that are increasing attainment levels at a higher rate.

The report analyzed the education systems of the 34 OECD member countries in addition to Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

In the U.S., 42 percent of all 25-64 year-olds have reached higher education -- making it one of the most well educated countries in the world, but behind Canada (51 percent), Israel (46 percent), Japan (45 percent) and the Russian Federation (54 percent). When it comes to the young adult population, however, the U.S. ranks 14th among 37 OECD and G20 countries in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds boasting higher education attainment, at 42 percent. This puts it above the OECD average of 38 percent, but over 20 percentage points behind the leader, Korea, at 65 percent.

According to the report, higher education attainment levels in the U.S. are growing at a below-average rate compared to other OECD and G20 countries. Between 2000 and 2010, attainment levels in the U.S. increased by an average of 1.3 percentage points annually, while its OECD counterparts boasted a 3.7 percentage-point increase per year overall.

“Based on these trends, the U.S. may find that an increasing number of countries will approach or surpass its attainment levels in the coming years,” the U.S. country report reads. “Other countries in this situation include Estonia, Finland, Israel and the Russian Federation.”

These trends are also mirrored in the graduation rates of higher education institutions, the report states. In 1995, the U.S. ranked second behind New Zealand in graduate output among 19 OECD countries with comparable data. In 2010, it ranked 13th among 25 countries with comparable data. Though the higher education graduation rate in the U.S. grew from 33 percent to 38 percent over this time frame, the increase paled in comparison to that of its OECD peers, whose graduation rates on average nearly doubled from 20 percent to 39 percent.

American students also struggle more than their foreign peers to top their parents. The report highlighted that the odds a young person in the U.S. will attain higher education if his or her parents did not do so are a mere 29 percent, which ranks as one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.

Other findings include that the U.S. ranks 26th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, at 69 percent. Furthermore, teachers in the U.S. spend between 1,050 and 1,100 hours a year teaching, much more than in almost every country.

“Only Argentina has a longer instructional year than the United States, with U.S. teachers teaching approximately 40 percent more hours per year than teachers in other OECD countries, yet U.S. teachers’ salaries do not crack the top 10 among OECD countries,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

Weingarten also pointed out that using standardized-test results as a basis for evaluating and paying teachers is “very rare, as it is not even mentioned as one of the top 16 uses of testing data.”

She added: “while most U.S. education decisions are made by school districts, most OECD countries leave those decisions to the people closest to the students — the professionals in each school.”

More broadly, the report pushes for a public investment in education, arguing that the gap between the well-educated and poorly educated has widened due to the global recession. Furthermore, the analysis determined that public expenditure on education as a percentage of total public expenditure has decreased in 19 out of 32 individual countries between 2005 and 2009, though it remained at 13 percent of total public expenditure on average in all OECD countries.

In many OECD countries, students and their families have been forced to take on an increasing share of education costs, most visibly through tuition hikes.

In a statement, the OECD suggests that “one way to mitigate weak labour market returns is to provide higher education at lower costs for the individual”; this can be accomplished by subsidizing the direct costs of education — tuition fees — or providing students with loans and grants to improve incentives and access to education.

In the final part of his editorial statement, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría emphasizes the need for countries “to strike a careful balance between providing appropriate public support for education and requiring students and families to cover some of the costs.”

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