• Reuters


The United States has slipped behind many other countries in college completion and “educational mobility,” with fewer young Americans getting more education than their parents, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “Education at a Glance” report.

U.S. college graduation rates rank 19th out of 28 countries studied by the OECD, which tracks education investment and performance of wealthier democracies, said OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher.

The lack of educational mobility has serious implications for individuals and society, he noted. Higher education levels are associated not just with higher earnings, but also with better health, more community engagement and more trust in governments, institutions and other people.

“Raising educational attainment is not only giving countries more income but it is also creating a greater degree of social cohesion,” Schleicher said. “Every business transaction (is founded) on trust. Trust in institutions is vital, trust in democracies. All of those aspects are vital for the functioning of societies.”

In 2012, 39 percent of young Americans were expected to graduate from college, compared with 60 percent in Iceland, 57 percent in New Zealand and 53 percent in Poland. The U.S. graduation rate was ahead of Canada (35 percent), Germany (31 percent), Switzerland (31 percent), Spain (29 percent), Turkey (27 percent), Italy (26 percent), Chile (23 percent), Hungary (23 percent) and Mexico (22 percent).

In 1995, the United States was first among OECD member countries, with a 33 percent graduation rate. Since then, the average OECD college completion rate has grown from 20 percent to 38 percent as more countries focus on boosting the number of college graduates, Schleicher said.

About half of young people in OECD countries have at least matched their parents’ level of education. But in the United States, a larger-than-average proportion had less education (so-called downward mobility) while a smaller-than-average population had more education (upward mobility).

Twenty-nine percent of American men and 17 percent of American women had less education than their parents, compared with the OECD average of 19 percent for men and 13 percent for women. Twenty percent of U.S. men and 27 percent of U.S. women had more education than their folks, compared with the OECD average of 28 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

Among those Americans whose parents failed to finish high school, only 5 percent secured college diplomas, compared with an average of 20 percent in other countries studied. In Canada, Finland and the Russian Federation, over 30 percent of this group of young adults achieved college degrees.

In addition to less educational mobility, the United States, along with Japan, Germany, Austria and Estonia, has “less equitable access” to higher education, meaning that it’s harder for people with lower socioeconomic status to attend college, the OECD’s Schleicher said. That contrasts with countries such as Finland, Ireland, Australia and the Netherlands, which have both more equitable access to education and higher educational mobility, he said.

An argument could be made that the United States has less mobility because more of its population already had degrees than many other countries, “but you can see countries with similar attainment levels the U.S. showing still a much higher degree of educational mobility,” Schleicher said.

Among the report’s other findings:

Investments in education pay off handsomely for both individuals and taxpayers. The net present value of a college education — the benefit in today’s dollars after costs and discounting for future inflation — is over $380,000 for U.S. men and nearly $240,000 for U.S. women, the report found.

Higher salaries lead to more taxes collected, far offsetting such costs as defaulted student loans. “Taxpayers get $200,000 more out of every graduate than what they invested,” Schleicher said. “It’s a very good investment for taxpayers.”

U.S. teachers are paid well compared with those in other countries, but not compared with others in the United States with similar degrees. “In the U.S., teachers earn a lot less than other people with qualifications,” Schleicher said.

The United States was among just a handful of countries that cut its public expenditures on education between 2008 and 2011. Other countries to do so included Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, Italy and the Russian Federation. On average, OECD countries increased public expenditures on education by 7 percent during that period.

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