International Erosion

The U.S. lead in higher education is declining, and indicators about the future are not promising, an international report says.
September 14, 2005

"Should the United States worry about its educational system?" That's one question asked in an annual report on education worldwide by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The answer appears to be Yes.

The report documents numerous strengths in American education, especially higher education. But the report notes many ways in which the rest of the world has been slowly catching up with the United States.

For example, the United States leads the world in the percentage of people (35 percent) aged 55-64 who have a college education. With the exception of Canada (34 percent), no other county exceeded 27 percent. But as the report notes, that means that the United States was a world leader in providing higher education 35-45 years ago.

Examine younger population groups and a very different picture emerges. Of those aged 25-34, 39 percent of Americans have a college education. But that percentage puts the United States in seventh place among OECD nations, behind Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), South Korea (47 percent), and Finland, Norway, and Sweden (all 40 percent). Belgium ties the United States percentage and Spain is just behind at 38 percent.

Other statistics suggest that American domination of science may also be in danger of ending. For example, the OECD study compares the number of university graduates produced in the sciences for every 100,000 persons employed who are 25-34 years old. The United States figure (1,069) is well behind numerous nations, such as Finland (2,172), South Korea (2,000), Australia (1,942), Britain (1,926) and France (1,900).

Achievement of high school students also doesn't look good for the United States. In international comparisons of literacy, the United States scores about average among OECD nations for 15-year -olds, and it scores below average in mathematics. The report also notes the absence of a "strong elite" in mathematics in high school, with relatively few students achieving very high scores.

Among all OECD nations, the report notes continued progress for women -- but only in certain fields. Women now make up 57 percent of university graduates, the report says. But because participation of women in certain fields lags in many countries, their share of degrees does not top 30 percent in most science and engineering fields.


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