The World Gets a Little Flatter

New report comparing countries' educational systems suggests that U.S. dominance in higher education is continuing to ebb.
September 18, 2007

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is releasing an annual report today that -- in presenting the broadest and most up-to-date array of data about global education -- reinforces the sense that American higher education is in a competitive downward spiral.

"Education at a Glance 2007," which will be available this morning on the organization's Web site, in general finds a worldwide higher education network that is expanding, educating ever-more students and improving their economic standing. The report provides a set of findings on the overall situation in the 30 OECD countries -- which include much of Europe, the United States, Canada and Mexico, plus Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand -- and a look at the United States' status in that larger picture.

Internationally, the report finds that:

  • Enrollments are rising generally, though growth has been strongest -- more than doubling -- in countries such as Korea, Ireland and Spain that have purposefully driven that growth through changes in policy.
  • Graduation rates vary widely, with Austria, Germany and Turkey hovering around 20 percent and countries such as Australia, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland at over 40 percent.
  • Even as enrollments have expanded, there has been no significant change in the generally high pay or the generally low unemployment rates that the college educated enjoy compared to other groups, indicating that "the benefits of higher education have not deteriorated as higher education as expanded."
  • In countries where higher education has expanded the most, employment prospects for less-educated citizens had deteriorated, despite predictions to the contrary.
  • In most countries, the number of science graduates is growing faster than the overall number of graduates.
  • Between 1995 and 2004, growth in spending on education fell behind growth in national income.

Although there were numerous ways in which American higher education continued to lead the world, the report cites several statistics that are likely to prove worrying to policy makers in the United States:

  • The higher education entry rate -- an estimate of the probability that a young person will enter higher education at some point in his or her life, based on patterns of first entry into college -- rose to 64 percent in 2005, up from 57 percent in 2000. But only 54 percent of entrants to higher education in the United States obtain a degree, giving the U.S. (and New Zealand) the "lowest survival rate" among the OECD countries, which average 71 percent.
  • Not only are younger Americans going to college at significantly lower rates than older Americans did -- figures that have been well-reported -- but the proportions of employed 25 to 34-year-olds in the United States who have a science degree significantly lag the OECD averages.
  • While the United States remains by far the most popular destination for foreign study, the country is losing its market share of international students.

"The latest OECD published data shows a continued trend of stagnation in higher education access and graduation rates in the U.S. among younger students, and a relatively decline in our standing when compared to other developed economies," said John Douglass, senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education. "It's a trajectory that could prove a real drag on the nation's long-term economic competitiveness."

"Among younger students, the U.S. is now a little bit better than mediocre in getting students into colleges and universities, and pretty lousy at getting those who enroll to actually get a degree."


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