The international educational advantage the United States has long held over other countries is beginning to slip, according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to the report, Education at a Glance 2005, the United States has fallen behind in many educational indicators because of its inability to improve at the rate of other countries. As a result, the nation continues to do well as a knowledge economy-partly as a function of its size and far superior higher education system-but it no longer dominates on all measures as it once did.1
“There are causes for concern in the United States’ educational system,” the report reads. “The advantage it had over other countries of much higher completion rates of [high school] education and [postsecondary] education has been eroded.”
In looking at high school graduation rates, the report notes that the country’s advantage in producing high school graduates has declined dramatically, although its graduation rates have remained roughly the same. Forty years ago, the U.S. graduation rate of 85 percent placed it first among OECD nations.2 Although the rate is slightly up today, at 87 percent, sixteen OECD countries are doing better, with the U.S. ranking seventeenth.
The United States’s hegemony in producing college graduates has also declined. Thirty-five percent of fifty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds have a college degree, which is good enough for first place among OECD countries.3 Canada is the only other country above 27 percent. However, among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds with college degrees, the United States is tied for seventh-even though its percentage of college graduates has increased to 39 percent. Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), and Korea (47 percent) have all surpassed the U.S., while Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Spain are slightly above or equal to the U.S.
Even though the United States has lost its advantage in producing college graduates, it can still take pride in having some of the best and most respected colleges and universities in the world. According to the report, international rankings of the top institutions in the world are dominated by American universities. In addition, almost 30 percent of foreign students from throughout the world choose to study in the U.S.
However, many students do not receive the preparation they need for the rigors of college-especially compared to international standards. In fact, the United States’s decline relative to other OECD countries in producing high school and college graduates is best explained by the subpar efforts of its older students on international tests. American fifteen-year-olds’ mathematics performance on the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) placed them well below the OECD mean and ahead of only Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico.
Still, more than almost any other country in the world, the United States offers greater financial reward to individuals as they move up the education ladder. According to the report, American university graduates aged twenty-five to sixty-four earn, on average, 91 percent more than those who do not continue their education after receiving a high school diploma. Only Hungary (among OECD countries for which there is data available) reported a higher rate. On the opposite end of the scale, individuals in the same age group who did not graduate from high school earn an average of 30 percent less than those who have a high school degree. Of the OECD countries, only the United Kingdom (which, at 31 percent, is essentially the same) has as large a differential in earnings between the two educational levels. The report also notes that Americans with higher levels of education are less likely to be unemployed than those with lower levels of education.
The OECD briefing note for the United States on Education at a Glace 2005 is available at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/41/13/35341210.pdf.