College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Losing Its Lead in College Completion, Says International Study

By Madeline Will — September 08, 2014 2 min read
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The United States has fallen behind many of the world’s leading economies in terms of college completion, new data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows.

According to the Paris-based OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2014,” an annual report released today, 43 percent of Americans (ages 25-64) have a university-level education—the fifth-largest proportion out of 41 OECD and partner countries.

But in other countries, the higher education-attainment rate is increasing much faster. For example, 44 percent of U.S. 25-34 year-olds have a college degree—the 12th highest proportion, although it is 5 percentage points higher than the OECD average. Meanwhile, 42 percent of U.S. 55-64 year-olds have a college degree, and that’s only topped by three other countries.

Are the rising costs of higher education in the United States to blame? The direct costs of college (like tuition) to students in the United States are the highest among all OECD countries, the study found.

Since 1995, the cost per student in higher education in the United States has increased significantly, while the growth in the U.S. graduation rate has been much slower. Meanwhile, other countries have made strong gains in their graduation rates, surpassing the United States.

Still, the OECD study found that equitable access to higher education doesn’t necessarily guarantee a higher degree of social mobility.

“Our data suggests that this rising tide of more people going to college has not actually lifted all boats,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director for education and skills, and the special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general of the OECD, in a media briefing on Monday.

For example, a college degree is not a bullet against unemployment—especially for young adults, the study found. On average, across OECD countries, the unemployment rate for 25-34 year-olds with a college degree was 7.4 percent in 2012, up from 4.6 percent in 2008.

Also, upward mobility (defined in the report as the percentage of the population who have gotten more education than their parents) is limited globally, including in the United States. Thirty percent of 25-64 year-olds who are no longer students have achieved upward mobility in the United States—only three other countries surveyed showed a smaller percentage.

Schleicher noted that one reason for the low upward mobility in the United States is that more parents have a college degree in the first place, so possibilities of upward mobility are more limited. Still, almost 20 percent of non-students have actually experienced downward mobility in the United States.

Graphic: from OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2014" presentation, delivered by Andreas Schleicher

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.