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Global Higher Education Trends

September 11, 2012
By Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual Education at a Glance report today, a 565-pager with statistics on a wide range of education topics, from early childhood to higher education. The report tracks trends across the OECD member countries, which are predominantly wealthy — the nations of Western Europe are heavily represented, as are Australia, Israel, Japan, Korea and the United States — but also includes data from non-OECD states in the Group of 20, including Brazil, China, and India. Here are some highlights on postsecondary education:

Education and the Recession
A college degree served as a cushion during the recession across the OECD countries. Unemployment rates for college degree holders rose from 3.3 to 4.7 percent from 2008 to 2010, compared to an increase of 4.9 to 7.6 percent for those who had only completed secondary education.

Wage gaps between those with college degrees and those without widened during the recession. While in 2008 a man with higher education could expect to earn 58 percent more than his counterpart with a secondary degree — and a woman 54 percent more than her counterpart — by 2010 these figures had increased to 67 and 59 percent, respectively. The earnings premium on higher education is highest in Brazil.

Student Mobility
In 2010, more than 4.1 million students were enrolled in higher education outside their country of citizenship. This figure has increased dramatically, by 99 percent since 2000. In 1975, there were a mere 0.8 million students enrolled in foreign degree programs worldwide.

Students from Asia make up 52 percent of students studying outside their home country.

The most popular host countries are the United States (which attracts 17 percent of all international students), the United Kingdom (13 percent), Australia (7 percent), France (6 percent), and Germany (6 percent). The United States’ share of international students has declined from 23 to 17 percent over a decade.

Degree Attainment and Access
In the United States, 42 percent of 25- to 64-year-olds have attained higher education. This compares to a 31 percent average across the OECD countries.
However, there is once again evidence that the U.S. is falling behind. While most OECD countries have significantly higher proportions of 25-34-year-olds attaining higher education degrees compared to 55-64-year-olds – in South Korea, for example, the percentage of 25-34-year-olds with tertiary degrees is 65 percent, compared to 13 percent of 55-64-year-olds — in the United States rates are relatively flat across the generations. (Overall, the OECD average for 25-34-year-olds with tertiary degrees is 38 percent — fairly close to the U.S. overall average — while the average for the 55-64-year range is 23 percent.)

Women continue to make gains in higher education. Across the OECD countries, the percentage of women expected to enter a university program during their lifetimes increased from 60 percent in 2005 to 69 percent in 2010 (compared to an increase from 48 to 55 percent for men). Women make up 59 percent of all university “first degree” graduates. (In a U.S. context, that means baccalaureate degree graduates.) “While more needs to be done to increase women’s participation in fields of study like engineering, manufacturing and computer science – as well as their representation among advanced degree-holders – the progress thus far is nonetheless quite positive,” Angel Gurría, the OECD’s secretary-general, wrote in an editorial accompanying the report.

Gaps in access to higher education remain stark. Across the OECD countries, 20-34-year-olds from families with low levels of education are less than half (odds of 0.44 percent) as likely to be enrolled in higher education relative to the proportion of these families in the population, whereas a student who has at least one parent with a tertiary degree is nearly twice (odds of 1.9) as likely to be enrolled.

In the United States, along with Italy, Portugal and Turkey, young people from families with low levels of education are the least likely to obtain a higher level of education than their parents.

The report also examines the shifting balance of public investment versus private expenditures in the funding of higher education. It notes that 14 of 25 countries examined have instituted tuition reforms since 1995 – primarily resulting in tuition increases. Looking at education expenditures more generally, from 2005 to 2009, the average proportion of public expenditures devoted to education remained flat at 13 percent across the OECD countries, while they decreased in 19 of 32 individual countries.

As Gurría, the secretary-general, writes, “countries should take care to strike a careful balance between providing appropriate public support for education and requiring students and families to cover some of the costs.”

“As the expenditure data … suggest, students and families have been bearing an increasing share of the costs of education in many OECD countries. While this general approach is reasonable in that individuals receive many of the benefits of education, it can also lead to scenarios in which individuals face large financial barriers in pursuing more education – a situation that is now the case for people seeking higher education in several OECD countries.”

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