The United States still leads the world in having a college-educated workforce, but it is the only country among the G-20 members whose incoming workers are less educated than those retiring, according to a study released this morning by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In 2009, Americans accounted for more than one in every four of the 225 million people with postsecondary degrees in G-20 countries, according to the OECD's Education at a Glance 2011 report. Yet the numbers show a deep generational divide among degree-holders: Americans make up more than a third of all postsecondary degree holders, ages 55 to 64, but only a fifth of those ages 25 to 34.
"It's not that the United States is doing worse; its that other countries are starting to do what the United States has been doing for a very long time," said Andreas Schleicher, the head of the indicators and analysis division at the OECD's Directorate for Education, in a briefing on the report Monday morning. "There's been a quite dramatic expansion of the pool of qualified people."
China, in particular, has been gaining ground in education. Chinese between 25 and 34 account for nearly triple the global share of postsecondary degrees, 18.3 percent, compared to its older workers, who account for only 6.9 percent of postsecondary degrees in that age group. Moreover, China's educational edge is likely to grow: In 2009 China had 36.6 percent of students entering college, compared to the United States' 12.9 percent, and China accounted for 42.6 percent of the world's students graduating high school, compared to only 9.9 percent American students.
Because of its older workers, America still ranks in the top five most-educated countries among the G-20, but it drops to 15th among those ages 25 to 34—a decline that could deeply affect the nation's economic well-being, as prior research shows education has a greater effect on a person's earnings than other factors like race or gender.
Educational attainment can play a role in a country's politics and social fabric, too. The OECD study also found that 14-year-olds—generally 8th-graders—who scored higher on the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study were more likely to vote and to favor gender equality than those with lower civics education.
Schleicher said higher education is more expensive than that in other countries, and U.S. students feel a greater sense of risk in taking on student loans. He noted that other countries, such as the United Kingdom, make all loan repayment contingent on students earning sufficient income to pay the loans back— something that encourages more students to believe they will be able to afford college.
Yet Schleicher noted, "Tuition that US students pay is still low in comparison to the benefits that you get." After accounting for gender, age and income, adults with higher education reported they were "more satisfied with life, engaged in society and likely to report that they are in good health."