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The latest edition of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s "Education at a Glance" report highlights the relationship between educational attainment and employment, finding that the gap in employment rates between those with high and low levels of education widened during the recession. On average across the OECD member countries, the proportion of postsecondary degree holders who were unemployed increased by 1.5 percentage points from 2008 to 2011, to 4.8 percent, while it increased by 3.8 percentage points for individuals without a secondary degree, to 12.6 percent.

In the United States, the situation for lower-skilled workers is particularly stark. Unemployment rates for those without a secondary education climbed 6 percentage points from 2008 to 2011, to 16.2 percent, while the proportion of postsecondary-educated individuals who were unemployed increased 2.5 percentage points, to 4.9 percent.

“The crisis has really amplified the value of a good education,” Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the OECD's Secretary-General said during a Tuesday webinar coinciding with the report’s release. “Those who are well-educated have generally fared well during the years of the economic crisis while those without baseline qualifications, who didn’t complete high school or didn’t get a good vocational education, have really paid the price for the crisis.”

When asked about concerns regarding college graduates who are unemployed or stuck in unpaid internships, “We do see graduate unemployment but it’s in many cases a transitional phenomenon,” Schleicher said. “If you actually add it up over a sufficient number of years, the likelihood of being unemployed as a university graduate is below 5 percent. It hasn’t actually changed very much.”

“What we have to basically acknowledge – and it’s always been the case – is that for people who go to college the transition to the labor market is often longer and more protracted,” he said.

The "Education at a Glance" report considers comparative indicators of educational inputs and performance across the 34 member countries of the OECD (an organization of predominantly wealthy states) as well as select countries with rapidly emerging economies (including Brazil, China, India, and Russia). The 436-page report encompasses education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten to higher education, and considers a wide range of indicators including enrollment and graduation rates, employment rates and average earnings, and educational expenditures.  

Among the many findings, the United States’ historical advantage in producing higher education graduates has eroded: it ranks fifth in terms of postsecondary education attainment among 25-64-year-olds, but 12th when only 25- to 34-year-olds are considered. In 2011, 43 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. had obtained a higher education credential, which exceeds the OECD average of 39 percent but is significantly below the 64 percent figure boasted by South Korea, the world leader in this regard.

The U.S. is one of five countries surveyed that cut back on public educational expenditures during the recession (the other four countries being Estonia, Hungary, Iceland and Italy). However, despite a 1 percent reduction in public expenditures, the U.S. maintains a relatively high level of education expenditures, spending 7.3 percent of its GDP on education at all levels – an amount well above the 6.3 percent OECD average. The U.S. spends 2.8 percent of its GDP on higher education -- more than any other country and nearly twice the OECD average of 1.6 percent -- largely because it can mobilize private resources in the form of high tuition fees.  The public/private funding balance for higher education in the U.S. is nearly the reverse of what it is internationally. In the U.S., 36 percent of funding comes from public sources and 64 percent private, compared to a 68/32 public/private split across all OECD countries.

Number of Students Enrolled in Higher Education Outside their Country of Citizenship, Worldwide




0.8 million


1.1 million


1.1 million


1.3 million


1.7 million


2.1 million


3 million


4.1 million


4.3 million

Source: OECD and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics

Meanwhile, the number of students pursuing postsecondary degrees outside their country of citizenship continues to increase (see above chart) to 4.3 million in 2011. More than half of these globally mobile students (53 percent) are from Asia, with the largest numbers coming from China, India and South Korea. In absolute terms, the U.S. hosts more international students than any other nation (17 percent), followed by the United Kingdom (13 percent), Australia (6 percent), Germany (6 percent), France (6 percent), and Canada (5 percent). However, America’s share of the international student pie has declined by six percentage points since 2000, and Germany’s share has fallen by 3 percentage points. Meanwhile, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, South Korea, and the United Kingdom have all seen their shares grow by one or two percentage points. 

"In principle what we're currently seeing in the numbers is simply that other countries [aside from the U.S.] have pursued internationalization policies, and some quite successfully so," Schleicher said.

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