The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international group of 34 mostly-rich countries, has published its most recent Education at a Glance report for 2014, which ranks countries according to the proportion of adults (those age 25 to 64) who are better educated than their parents. This helps to determine how well member countries are doing at improving educational opportunity.
The full study can be found in the hyperlink above, while The Economist has put together the results in the following chart (note that for the sake of fair comparison, developing countries like Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico are not listed).
The New York Times also reported on this study, providing an even more telling chart:
As the article noted, the U.S. is doing far poorly than a nation of its size and wealth should:
Barely 30 percent of American adults have achieved a higher level of education than their parents did. Only Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic do worse. In Finland more than 50 percent of adults are more educated than their parents.
And matters are getting worse, not better. Among 25- to 34-year olds, only 20 percent of men and 27 percent of women, both out of school, have achieved a higher level of education than their parents.
It’s even bleaker at the bottom: Only one in 20 Americans aged 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 rich countries in the O.E.C.D. analysis is almost one in four.
Moreover, as usual, it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society that are hit the hardest: there is a wide and ever-growing income gap in the graduation rate of teenagers from lower-income backgrounds versus higher-income ones; one study found a sharp increase in the impact of family income on the likelihood of graduation.
Basically, you need an education more than ever to make decent money, but need more money than ever to get a decent education. In such a competitive, globalized economy, that catch-22 is not sustainable. This is all the more tragic given that the U.S. once lead the way in providing free or affordable education at all levels (the Times piece notes how decades ago, America was already educating far more of its citizens before European countries did).
Given that the OECD’s report runs over 500 pages long, I have not had the chance to read the complete findings. However, one highlight that did catch my attention was the following:
In Brazil, Turkey and the United States, adults without upper secondary education are the most penalised in their wages, earning, at best, 35% less than people with that qualification. In Chile, Brazil and Hungary, those with tertiary education are, comparatively, the most highly rewarded, earning more than double the income of a person with upper secondary education.
This is just a small snippet, but it suggests that education is not as vital for economic success across the board. Some countries, such as Austria and Germany, still manage to have largely prosperous middle-class societies despite low educational mobility, thanks to a relative abundance of vocational schools, job training opportunities, and well-paying low-skill work.
However, the overall trend is clear:
In all OECD countries, adults with tertiary education earn considerably more than adults with below upper secondary education. Between 2005 and 2012, in countries with available data for both years, the relative earnings of adults without upper secondary education either remained stable or fell, to some degree, when compared with earnings of adults with upper secondary education.
In addition, in most of these countries, earnings of tertiary-educated adults relative to earnings of adults with upper secondary education increased or remained stable during the same period; the only exceptions are Hungary and the United States.
These differences suggest that the demand for higher-level and updated skills have grown, and that individuals with lower levels of skills are even more vulnerable today
In much of the rich world — and increasingly in the developing world as well — an education remains more vital than ever for individual and societal prosperity. But is the solution to make education on all levels more accessible and affordable, or to instead develop economies in which even those without a formal education can succeed? Perhaps a bit of both? What are your thoughts?