In Education Spending, U.S. Near the Top, Report Finds

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A new international study pegs the United States once again as one of the world's biggest spenders on education.

The report from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also suggests that privately paid tuition fees for universities account for a comparatively large portion of those expenditures. That finding reflects both the high level of participation in higher education in the United States and the relatively low level of public spending on college scholarships.

For More Information

Information about ordering "Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 1997," or its slimmer summary guide, "Education Policy Analysis 1997," is available on the OECD's World Wide Web site at

"Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators," released last month, is the seventh annual statistical report on education published by the 29-nation federation, which promotes economic growth and world trade. Its members include most European nations as well as other industrialized countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. Most of the report's data come from 1994 and 1995.

Across all levels of education: public and private, from primary to postsecondary school, the United States spends $7,790 per pupil--the highest of any of the nations studied in the report.

At the primary and secondary levels, two other countries--Austria and Switzerland--spend more per student on schooling. Only Switzerland, however, spends more per student at the postsecondary level. Americans spend $15,510 per student for higher education compared with Switzerland's $15,850. Both figures are more than twice the average for the 29 OECD nations.

But when expenditures for education institutions at all levels are taken as a percentage of gross domestic product, or national income, the United States dropsto fifth place behind Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Americans spend 6.6 percent of their national income on education; the other 28 countries spend between 2 percent and 8 percent.

In only one other nation, South Korea, do private funds figure more prominently in such spending. Nonpublic expenditures account for more than a quarter of education spending in both South Korea and the United States.

Booming Enrollments

In the United States, most of that money comes in the form of tuition payments to colleges and universities, said Albert Tuijnman, the principal administrator for the OECD's education and training division.

"The U.S. is the number-one nation in the world as far as enrollment in postsecondary institutions," he said. In 1995, one-fourth of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 had completed university-level schooling. Percentages in the other nations studied ranged from 6 percent to 22 percent.

The United States achieves high participation rates in higher education with relatively little public spending on scholarships, grants, and loans. Less than 1 percent of public education expenditures in the United States goes to public subsidies for higher education.

Australia, Denmark, France, and Sweden spend 6 percent of their total education expenditures on public expenditures to help families defray or avoid tuition costs. Such comparisons are difficult, however, because higher education systems and the way countries pay for them vary markedly.

Yet, despite the prevalence of higher education in America, secondary school dropout rates in the United States are relatively high compared with those of other nations. Nearly 45 percent of Americans are not enrolled in school at the time of their expected age of graduation, according to the report. That figure is less than 30 percent in six other countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Ireland.

Income Gap

Mr. Tuijnman said the high dropout number is a concern because data included in the report for the first time this year show that, in the United States, the gap in earnings between workers with a high school education and those with a university degree is among the largest of the 29 countries.

Other new statistics in the report suggest that higher levels of educational attainment do not necessarily lead to increased literacy. The data, from a 1997 study of 12 nations, puts adults in the United States somewhere in the middle of the pack in their scores on tests designed to gauge a variety of literacy skills.

Mr. Tuijnman said researchers believe the key to better national literacy skills are the kinds of opportunities the workplace provides for employees to practice those skills. "You either use it or lose it," he said.

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