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EDUCATION AT A GLANCE 2012: Annual OECD Report Ranks U.S. Educational Performance Versus International Competitors

“Countries need an increasingly educated and skilled workforce to succeed in today’s knowledge economy."

At 69 percent, the United States ranks twenty-eighth in the percentage of four-year-olds in early childhood education, according toEducation at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, released earlier this month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report also finds that the odds of a young person in the United States continuing through to postsecondary education if his or her parents do not have a high school diploma are just 29 percent, ranking the United States twenty-fifth out of twenty-seven countries.

The good news is that the United States does fairly well in both high school and college graduation rates, although its ranking in each has slipped in recent years, the report finds. For number of high school graduates, the United States ranks first in the world among fifty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds, with 90 percent of the population having earned a high school diploma. Among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds, however, the United States slipped to eleventh.

In higher education, 42 percent of all twenty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds in the United States have completed a university education, ranking the U.S. fifth behind only Canada (51 percent), Israel (46 percent), Japan (45 percent), and the Russian Federation (54 percent). Among younger individuals, however, those aged twenty-five to thirty-four years old, the United States slipped to fourteenth, as shown in the graph above. Between 2000 and 2010, growth in tertiary attainment in the U.S. grew at an average of 1.3 percentage points a year, compared to an average of 3.7 percentage points for OECD countries. Based on this trend, the report warns that the United States could fall further in these rankings in the coming years.

Part of the reason higher education attainment rates have stagnated in the United States could be the increasing costs associated with getting a postsecondary degree. According to the report, the total cost for a man in the United States to pursue higher education ($116,000) is second highest in the world.2  Only the United Kingdom ($122,155), the Netherlands ($104,231), and Japan ($103,965) have costs above $100,000 and, unlike the United States, the majority of their costs consists of foregone earnings.

While the cost is high, the payoff for obtaining a higher education degree is much greater in the United States than in most OECD countries. According to the report, a tertiary-educated man in the United States can expect to earn almost $675,000 more over his working life than a man with no more than a high school diploma or a “nontertiary education”—far more than in any other country.3  The corresponding number for an American woman is nearly $390,000, an amount approached only by tertiary-educated women in Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, the estimated public return on a tertiary-educated man is $232,779, which is higher than in all other countries except Hungary; for women in the United States, the return is $84,313, which ranks seventh.

In order to reduce inequality, boost social mobility, and improve individuals’ employment prospects, the report urges governments to increase investment in early childhood programs and maintain “reasonable” costs for higher education.

“Countries need an increasingly educated and skilled workforce to succeed in today’s knowledge economy,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Investing from an early age is crucial to lay the foundations of later success. High-quality education and skills have to be among the number-one priorities for governments, for economies, and for societies. Supporting the poorest and ensuring equal access is another important pillar in an inclusive education policy strategy.”

Education at a Glance 2012 is available at Highlights for the United States are available at

Total cost includes direct costs, as well as foregone earnings an individual could have earned while he is in school.

The duration of a nontertiary education is usually the equivalent of between six months and two years of full-time study.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.