Mediocre Millennials

New international study compares young adults in U.S. with those of other O.E.C.D. nations -- and the results won't cheer Americans.

February 17, 2015

Comparisons of the educational levels of Americans with those of other industrialized nations rarely reassure those in the United States. And a new analysis released today by the Educational Testing Service is likely to be unsettling to many.

The new study makes use of data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development through a project called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (or PIAAC). The data look at the capabilities of all adults (and of groups of adults) rather than comparing those at certain grade levels, as is the case with many international comparisons.

In theory, an all-adult focus might benefit Americans, since much of the rest of the world has only more recently sought to provide a higher education (or higher levels of secondary education) to broad cross sections of their populations. But the results show the United States lagging most O.E.C.D. nations. The PIAAC focuses on three areas: literacy, numeracy and problem solving.

The ETS study focuses on millennials (those 16 to 34), noting that they will be in the American workforce for many decades to come and reflect the current state of the American educational system.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • In literacy, millennials in the U.S. were better only than Spain and Italy among the 22 participating O.E.C.D. countries.
  • In numeracy, millennials in the U.S. were tied for last with Italy and Spain.
  • In problem solving, millennials in the U.S. again ranked last, this time tied with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland.
  • Countries that ranked high for millennial score levels (in order, across fields): Finland, Japan, Sweden, Netherlands and Norway.

The U.S. millennial population of course includes both those with and without a college education. And the data show that a college degree is no guarantee of comparing well internationally. U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their counterparts in only two countries in the study: Poland and Spain.

Further, the best-educated millennials -- those who have a master's or a research-oriented degree -- only outperformed across all fields their counterparts in Ireland, Poland and Spain.

The ETS study also looked at various demographic groupings. For instance, the study found a strong correlation between the millennial skill levels and parental levels of educational attainment. But there was no country that scored lower than the United States across all levels of parental educational attainment.

Another interesting finding relates to immigrant populations. In most of the countries studied, native-born millennials outperformed immigrant millennials, not surprising since the latter would have been uprooted at some point, perhaps interrupting their education. When the researchers isolated the scores of native-born U.S. millennials and compared them to those of other countries, the Americans did not perform higher than those in any other country.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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