United States

Educational Attainment and Mobility Slowing in the United States, OECD Finds


Washington, September 9, 2014 – The proportion of adults in the U.S. population with a tertiary qualification is growing more slowly than in most OECD countries, while fewer Americans are achieving an educational level which is higher than that of their parents, a new OECD study finds.

Education at Glance 2014 shows that while a large proportion of adults in the United States have a tertiary-level education (43% of 25-64 year-olds, the fifth largest proportion in the OECD), the rate of tertiary attainment increased by only 7% over the period 2000-2012 in the United States, below the OECD average of 11%. During the same period, Ireland and Luxembourg increased their rates by 18% and 21% respectively, achieving tertiary attainment levels comparable to those in the United States.

However, the study also finds that attainment rates among adult women in the United States is much higher than the OECD average. Some 45% of adult women earn a tertiary degree – 11 percentage points higher than the OECD average. This is on par with that of Australia, Estonia, Finland, Japan and New Zealand.

The report shows that just over half of U.S. adults aged 25-64 (53%) who are no longer students have attained the same level of education than that of their parents, while 32% have achieved a higher level, and 16% have achieved a lower level. A slowdown in educational mobility is apparent among younger adults aged 25-34 who are no longer students: almost the same proportion has achieved upward educational mobility (24%) as downward mobility (23%). Meanwhile, a break-down of the data by gender reveals that a greater percentage of young men aged 25-34 have experienced downward educational mobility (29%) than upward mobility (20%).

“Education can lift people out of poverty and social exclusion, but to do so we need to break the link between social background and educational opportunity,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “The biggest threat to inclusive growth is the risk that social mobility could grind to a halt. Increasing access to education for everyone and continuing to improve people’s skills will be essential to long-term prosperity and a more cohesive society.”

New data show that the level of education and skills matters more in the United States when it comes to earnings than in other countries. Across the OECD, over 27% of adults who have not completed upper secondary education earn less than half of the national median; in the U.S., 48 % of adults in this group do – the largest proportion of all countries with available data. On the other hand, among U.S. adults who have completed a university-level education, 31% earn more than twice the median, versus the OECD average of 28%.

At the same time, the earnings premium for college-educated adults aged 25-64 has been on the decline in the United States, falling from 86% in 2005 to 74% in 2012. On average across the OECD, the premium increased from 54% to 59% over the same period.

In the United States, direct costs such as tuition fees are by far the highest across OECD countries. A man pursuing higher education invests about US $61,000 in direct costs and US $45,000 in foregone earnings; for a woman, the direct cost is the same, but the foregone earnings are a bit higher at US $48,000. The OECD averages are around US $11,000 (direct costs) and US $40,000 (foregone earnings).

The study also finds that the United States spends more on tertiary education than any other country: US $26,021 per student per year. Only Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland also spend more than US $20,000 per student per year, while the OECD average is US $13,958.

Education at a Glance 2014 analyzes the education systems of the 34 OECD member countries, as well as Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Latvia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. Further information on Education at a Glance, including country notes, multilingual summaries and key data, is available at


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