OECD Report Brings Good News to the US on College Graduates

A report release by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — especially one dealing with education — usually leads to hand-wringing in the U.S. due to the typically middling rankings compared to other developed countries. The latest Education at a Glance report, however, will serve as an exception.

According to the data compiled by OECD, while college graduation rates around the world have continued to rise and many developed countries now have 30% of their population receive a college-equivalent diploma, the U.S, with more than 40%, remains one of the highest producers of college graduates in the world.

Still, the authors of the report express some concern about the decreasing rate of growth, speculating that many developed countries are reaching critical mass when it comes to the percentage of their population that goes on to graduate college. For example, since 1997, annualized growth rate in the U.S. has been only 1% while Poland, which is considered an emerging market, has been increasing the number of college graduates by more than 7% every year.

Otherwise, the report offers few surprises. It reinforces the point that countries that spend the most as a percentage of GDP on education tend to have higher percentage of college graduates.

The majority of countries that spend the most on education have the most educated populations. As in previous years, the best educated countries tend to spend the most on tertiary education as a percentage of gross domestic product. The United States and Canada, among the most educated countries, spend the first and third most respectively.

Not every kind of spending contributes equally, however. Matthias Rumpf, the OECD’s Chief Media Officer, said that although any kind of education spending contributes in some way, the level of private spending correlates more strongly to the growth in college graduates than does public spending.

Private spending on educational institutions relative to public expenditure is much larger in the countries with the highest rates of college-equivalent education. Among the countries with the highest proportion of residents with a tertiary education, a disproportionate amount of spending comes from private sources, including tuition and donations. The OECD average proportion of private spending is 16 percent. In the U.S., 28 percent of funding comes from private sources. In South Korea, another country in the top 10, it is more than 40 percent.

The report shows that countries that have more educated populations also seemed to weather the recession better than those that do not. Since 2008, the year most mark as the beginning of the most recent economic downturn, unemployment for those without a high school diploma jumped by slightly less than 4% from 8.8% to 12.5%. For those with a high school diploma, the unemployment rate rose from 4.9% to 7.6%. Yet for those with a college degree, the difference was a mere 1.4%, going to 4.7% from 3.3%.

Overall, the U.S. has the fourth most educated populace behind Canada, Israel – which only entered the OECD list in 2010 – and Japan.