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EDUCATION AT A GLANCE: International Comparison Places the United States Near the Bottom in High School Graduation Rates and College Graduates

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“While the U.S. is still the most popular destination for foreign students, in a four year period when the number of international students worldwide has increased by 41 percent, the U.S. share of the international tertiary student market has fallen from 25 percent to 22 percent.”

The financial penalty for not graduating high school is more severe in the United States than in almost every other of the thirty countries that are part of the Organisation [sic] for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).1 In fact, according to Education at a Glance 2006, the annual report of international education statistics from the OECD, the earnings of a 25–64-year-old high school dropout in the United States is only 65 percent of someone with a high school diploma—the greatest income disadvantage of all OECD countries. In addition, it notes that people without a high school diploma are less likely to be employed than a high school graduate.

Forty years ago, when an individual did not necessarily need a high school diploma to guarantee landing a good job, the United States led the world in producing high school graduates. In fact, according to the report, 86 percent of 55–64 year-olds in the United States have a high school diploma, well above the OECD average of 53 percent and four percentage points higher than the next closest country, the Czech Republic (82 percent).

A lot has changed in the last forty years. Today, as the report argues, an “upper secondary qualification”—the international equivalent of a high school diploma—is the “baseline for successful entry into the labour [sic] market.” Based on the significant increase in their graduation rates, most of the United States’ international counterparts have figured that out and have moved past the United States in the rankings.

In fact, the OECD analysis pegs the United States’ high school graduation rate at 75 percent, which places it in a tie for seventeenth out of the twenty-two OECD countries for which data is available—well below the OECD average of 81 percent, and far behind leaders such as Norway, Germany, and Korea.

Country

High School Graduation Rate

Country

High School Graduation Rate

Norway

100%

Slovak Republic

83%

Germany

99%

France

81%

Korea

96%

Italy

81%

Ireland

92%

Poland

79%

Japan

91%

Sweden

78%

Denmark

90%

New Zealand

75%

Finland

90%

United States

75%

Switzerland

89%

Luxembourg

69%

Czech Republic

87%

Spain

66%

Hungary

86%

Turkey

53%

Iceland

84%

Mexico

38%

 

The high school graduation rate is not the only indicator of the United States’ loss of hegemony. In producing college-educated individuals, what was once a case of clear dominance by the United States has transformed into a struggle to keep pace.

Thirty-five to forty-five years ago, 36 percent of individuals in the United States had obtained a college degree, giving the nation top ranking. Only Canada, at 35 percent, was close behind. Today, however, at 39 percent, the United States has seen only a small increase in the percentage of individuals with a college degree. Meanwhile, several other countries have caught up and surpassed the United States, including Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), and Korea (49 percent). The United States now ranks in a tie for seventh with Norway. Given that, from 1995 to 2003, college enrollment in the United States increased by 21 percent, a figure considerably lower than the OECD average of 38 percent, it is likely that even more countries will catch up and surpass the United States in college degree attainment.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the United States can blame its low college “survival rate,” the percentage of individuals who enroll in college and ultimately receive a degree, as the main cause of its loss of preeminence. At 54 percent, the United States’ survival rate, which is on par with those of Mexico and New Zealand, is one of the lowest of the OECD countries and well below the OECD average of 70 percent. Japan, at 91 percent, is the pace setter. If these trends in college enrollment and degree attainment are projected into the future, the United States’ share of college graduates is expected to decline from 41 percent to 36 percent over the next ten years, while countries such as Japan and Korea are expected to benefit.

Some of the blame for a low survival rate must go to the poor preparation that individuals receive in high school. As the report noted, fifteen-year-olds in the United States performed poorly on the 2003 international comparison assessment. Out of the thirty OECD countries that participate in the Programme [sic] for International Student Assessment (PISA) in math, an international test for fifteen-year-olds, the United States’ average performance was statistically lower than twenty countries and statistically higher than that of only Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico, and Turkey.

The United States rewards individuals who persist through college and earn their degree more than almost any other country. In fact, among 25–64-year-olds, earnings for college graduates are 72 percent higher than for those people with only a high school degree, an increase of 4 percent since 1997, and higher than every other country except the Czech Republic (82 percent) and Hungary (117 percent).

The United States’ colleges and universities remain the envy of the world, but the report contains evidence that this dominance might also be on the verge of ending, as the number of international students who choose to enroll in American universities is also on the decline. “While the U.S. is still the most popular destination for foreign students, in a four year period when the number of international students worldwide has increased by 41 percent, the U.S. share of the international tertiary student market has fallen from 25 percent to 22 percent,” the report reads.

In a search for international solutions, OECD analysts imply that countries should reconsider the way that they fund education and address “inherently class-biased and often regressive ways of funding educational opportunities.” As an example, the report notes that students from the most socioeconomically disadvantaged quartile of the population are “3.5 times more likely than their peers to be in the bottom quartile of mathematics performance and in no country is this less than twice as likely to be the cause.”

More information about the report is available at http://www.oecd.org/edu/eag2006.

1) The thirty countries that make up the OECD are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Administration Links Education to Interests of American BusinessesWithin the last two weeks, two high-ranking members of the Bush administration have reached out to the business community to stress the importance of education to the health of the American economy.

On September 8, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. While she was in New York City, Spellings spoke with business leaders about the president’s proposals to improve education and to prepare students for the needs of the global marketplace. “One of the most pressing concerns in the business community today is a shortage of skilled, qualified employees,” Spellings said.

In a speech before the National Association for Business Economics on September 12, Edward P. Lazear, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, called K–12 education the “weakest component of our human capital investment structure.” On a more positive note, he said, “Fortunately, our colleges and graduate schools are the best in the world. We export education by training large numbers of international students in our American colleges and universities and it is good for us to continue to do that, but we must also make sure that those Americans who do not go on to college also get the skills that allow them to compete in a modern American economy. Strengthening K–12 education, reducing our dropout rates, and ensuring that all of our young citizens receive high-quality education will be important not only in the near future, but as we move into the later years of the 21st century.”

More information about Secretary Spellings’ appearance at the NYSE can be found athttp://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2006/09/09082006a.html.

Lazear’s complete address is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/cea/lazear20060912.html.

 

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