Education pays

Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division, OECD Directorate for Education
Today’s launch of Education at a Glance 2011 gives us a good opportunity to take stock of where education is today and where it might be headed. And as the OECD celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, this is also good moment to reflect on how education has evolved over the past half-century.

The first obvious development over the years has been the dramatic expansion of higher education around the world. In 1995, for example, the United States was the standard against which other countries measured their education output; today the US is considered an average performer because so many other countries have expanded higher education so much faster.

This expansion has had a significant impact on the global talent pool. Across 36 countries, some 39 million people near retirement age have university-level degrees; but among the age group now entering the work force, some 81 million people do. More countries are represented in this pool of highly educated adults, too. For example, China’s share has expanded from less than 7% among the older age group to 18% among those who have just entered the labour market – just 2 percentage points less than the US share of highly educated adults.

What’s driving this expansion? Higher education brings substantial economic benefits to both individuals and societies. On average across OECD countries, a person with a university-level education can expect to earn over 50% more than a person with an upper secondary education. Over his lifetime, a highly educated man in the OECD area can enjoy gross earnings of around USD 338,000 more than a man with a secondary school diploma. And the additional taxes and social contributions paid by graduates of higher education make investment in this level of education very profitable for the public, as well. 

In contrast, the penalties for not completing an upper secondary education can be severe – from substantially lower wages to a greater likelihood of being unemployed, particularly during tough economic times. On average across OECD countries, during the depths of the global downturn in 2008-09, unemployment rates among those with higher education have stayed at or below 4%, while unemployment rates among those with only lower secondary education breached the 10% level.

What emerges from all the data we offer in Education at a Glance – from tuition-fees policies to teachers’ salaries to what fields of education students choose to study – is the strong message that both public and private investment in education pays off, not just financially but also in the less-quantifiable ways that make societies great.

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