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International comparisons of education outcomes

How does the United States compare with other countries in labor force outcomes of education?


In 2019, 50 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds had a postsecondary1 degree in the United States, higher than the OECD average of 45 percent. The expansion of postsecondary education is a worldwide trend. Between 2009 and 2019, the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with a postsecondary degree increased in all OECD and partner countries. In the United States, the share increased by 9 percentage points during this period, similar to the average increase across OECD countries (9 percentage points).

The most common postsecondary qualification among adults in the United States is a bachelor’s degree, which was held by 24 percent of all 25- to 64-year-olds in 2019, compared to 18 percent on average across OECD countries. Associate’s2 degrees were also more common in the United States: 11 percent of 25- to 64-year-olds had attained this level, compared to 7 percent across OECD countries.

Young people can face barriers to labor market entry as they transition from school to work, but higher educational attainment increases their likelihood of being employed and is associated with higher incomes. On average across OECD countries, the employment rate in 2019 was 61 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds without a high school diploma,3 78 percent for those with a high school diploma or postsecondary nontertiary4 education as their highest attainment and 85 percent for those with postsecondary education. In the United States, the shares are 57 percent for below high school completion, 74 percent for high school completion or postsecondary nontertiary attainment, and 85 percent for postsecondary attainment.

Having a postsecondary degree also carries a considerable earnings advantage in most OECD and partner countries. In the United States, in 2018, 25- to 64-year-olds with a postsecondary degree with income from full-time, full-year employment earned 71 percent more than full-time, full-year workers who had completed high school compared to 54 percent on average across OECD countries. Those with a master’s or doctoral degree or equivalent in the United States had one of the highest earning premiums across OECD countries: earning 121 percent more than those who had completed high school compared to 89 percent on average across OECD countries.

1 OECD uses the term “tertiary” to describe postsecondary degree programs which correspond to all degrees at the associate’s level and above in the United States.

2 OECD uses the term “short-cycle tertiary” to describe degree programs which provide practically based, occupationally specific content and prepare students to enter the labor market, which corresponds with an associate’s degree in the United States.

3 OECD uses the term “upper secondary” to describe high school completion in the United States.

4 OECD uses the term “postsecondary nontertiary” to describe awards that are below the associate’s level.

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2020). Education at a Glance 2020, United States Country Note.

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