OECD Factbook 2013: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics
branch Education
branch Outcomes
    branch Educational attainment

Educational attainment is a commonly used proxy for the stock of human capital – that is, the skills available in the population and the labour force. As globalisation and technology continue to re-shape the needs of the global labour market, the demand for individuals who possess a broader knowledge base, more specialised skills, advanced analytical capacities, and complex communication skills continues to rise. As a result, more individuals are pursuing higher levels of education than in previous generations, leading to significant shifts in attainment levels over time within countries.

At the same time, the rise of new economic powers – and sustained efforts by some countries to build and invest in their tertiary education systems – has shifted the global landscape of educational attainment as well. In recent years, countries with strong and long-held leads in attainment have seen their positions erode as individuals in other countries have increased their attainment at an extremely fast pace.


Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education completed by a person, shown as a percentage of all persons in that age group. Tertiary education includes both tertiary-type A programmes, which are largely theoretically-based and designed to provide qualifications for entry to advanced research programmes and professions with high skill requirements; and tertiary-type B programmes, which are generally not intended to lead to further university-level degrees, but rather directly to the labour market. Upper secondary education typically follows completion of lower secondary schooling. Lower secondary education completes provision of basic education, usually in a more subject-oriented way and with more specialised teachers.


The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED-97) is used to define the levels of education in a comparable way across countries. The OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics describes ISCED-97 education programmes and attainment levels and their mappings for each country.


An indication of long-term trends in educational attainment can be obtained by comparing the current attainment levels of younger and older age cohorts. Tertiary attainment levels have increased considerably over the past 30 years. On average across OECD countries, 38% of 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary attainment, compared with 23% of 55-64 year-olds. Canada, Japan, Korea and the Russian Federation lead OECD and G20 countries in the proportion of young adults (25-34 year-olds) with a tertiary attainment, with 55% or more having reached this level of education. In France, Ireland, Japan, Korea and Poland, there is a difference of 25 percentage points or more between the proportion of young adults and older adults who have attained this level of education.

In 2010, over 30% of the population aged between 25 and 64 has attained tertiary level education in more than half of the OECD countries.

On average across OECD countries, 26% of adults now have only primary or lower secondary levels of education, 44% have upper secondary education and 31% have a tertiary qualification. Over the past decade most of the changes in educational attainment have occurred at the low and high ends of the attainment distribution. Between 2000 and 2010 the share of those who had not attained an upper secondary education decreased by 10 percentage points while the proportion with tertiary education increased by 9 percentage points across OECD countries. This largely reflects the fact that older workers with low levels of education have moved out of the labour force, and that many countries have expanded their focus on higher education in recent years.



Further information
Analytical publications
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Indicator in PDF Acrobat PDF page

Educational attainment
    Table in Excel

Population that has attained tertiary education Figure in Excel
Population that has attained tertiary