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International College Comparisons

from John Schmitt

Paul Krugman has reproduced an OECD chart that was featured in a recent post by Jared Bernstein. The graph of interest (below) contrasts the share of older and younger people in OECD countries that have the equivalent of a four-year college degree or more.

Tertiary education, by age and country, OECD

Source: OECD via Jared Bernstein.

The dark blue squares show the share of the population age 55-64 with a college education; the light blue triangles show the share of much younger 25-34 year olds that have college degree. The arrows connecting the two observations for each country give an idea of the degree of national progress between generations. So, the long lines for Korea or Ireland, for example, suggest enormous progress in the thirty years or so between the time when the two age groups hit college age.

Jared’s main concern is that the United States “has essentially ceased making progress in terms of college attainment.” There is no arrow between the older and the younger generations’ college attainment rates because they are basically identical. Jared also notes that our younger generations are “now behind those of 12 other countries.” Krugman highlights the same points: “what we see is that almost every other nation is becoming more educated, but we’re not — and, of course, [the United States is] slipping rapidly down the rankings.”

I’d also emphasize two additional points. First, it is nice to hear a prominent economist like Krugman argue that the cost of college “is surely the biggest single reason for our slide.” Almost anyone who isn’t an economist will be surprised to hear that the costs of college barely appear on the radar screen of most economists who study the steep rise in inequality over the last three decades.

Here, for example, are economists Michael Greenstone (MIT) and Adam Looney (Brookings), in their otherwise excellent paper (pdf) on stagnating and declining male earnings since the 1970s:

…men have largely stopped upgrading their skills – the portion of young men who complete college has hardly budged since the late 1970s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but include the end of the Vietnam War (which had artificially inflated college attendance rates among men) and a temporary narrowing of the wage gap in the 1970s as the supply of skilled workers in the labor force surged.

Not a mention of the rising cost of college, and this is entirely typical in the economics profession. (Heather Boushey and I have a different take (pdf).)

Second, Germany is an interesting and overlooked case. In the chart, Germany looks just like the United States, with no progress between the two generations. Worse, the Germans look stuck at a much lower level than the United States –even below the OECD average. Yet, Germany is one of the world’s economic powerhouses and leading exporters.

The German experience suggests that economic success isn’t all about college. Germany puts fewer people through college, but also provides important post-secondary educational opportunities for the majority of young people that don’t get a college degree, including the acclaimed German apprenticeship system.

It isn’t just that we don’t have enough college graduates in the United States, it is also that we don’t create enough high-quality, post-secondary but non-college educational experiences either.

  1. robert r locke
    April 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Amen to these observations. I would also like to know what the shift in subjects studied has been. The rush in the US to study subjects preoccupiied with money, as opposed to traditional subjects that deal with artefacts, has fed fhe boom in investor capitalism and, I suspect, the decline in manufacturing.

  2. Stuart Birks
    April 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    There has also been a big shift in graduates by gender. Do you have any breakdown on this basis?

  3. Podargus
    April 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    The table is a poor measure of progress in national education.More university graduates doesn’t necessarily equate with high quality.A lot of university courses are glorified trade certificates and do nothing to broaden the minds of the recipients.What you end up with are bogans with letters after their names
    Higher education is now treated as an industry complete with excessive profit taking by the
    providers and their hangers on.Meanwhile,the more important education streams,primary and secondary,are starved of resources with consequent poor outcomes.
    Education,in its many and varied forms,is far too important to be treated in this cavalier fashion

  4. Randeep ramesh
    April 14, 2012 at 10:19 am

    I showed this graph to Jared during the course of an interview for The Guardian. Its from Bill Clinton’s book and we were talking about how the US had leapfrogged the UK in education durings the early 20th century. His concern was the stagnation in education since.

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