Indicator A1. To what level have adults studied?

Rising educational attainment is most strongly reflected in the increases in tertiary attainment rates over the past few decades. On average across OECD countries with available trend data, the share of 25-34 year-olds with a tertiary degree (i.e. short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral or equivalent) has increased from 27% in 2000 to 48% in 2021 (Figure A1.1). These increases mean a tertiary qualification has become the most common level of attainment among younger adults on average across OECD countries. If current trends continue, tertiary attainment will overtake upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment as the most common level of educational attainment among the entire working-age population in the near future as the current group of 25-34 year-olds age and younger cohorts with higher levels of tertiary attainment enter the workforce. Tertiary attainment is already becoming the norm among young adults in many OECD countries. In 14 OECD countries, more than half of all 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary degree, rising to at least two-thirds in Canada and Korea. Italy and Mexico are the only OECD countries where tertiary attainment among younger adults is below 30% (Table A1.2).

The trend of increasing tertiary attainment has persisted steadily throughout the last two decades. The average increase in tertiary attainment since 2011 closely matches the growth of the previous decade. However, at the country level, important differences exist. Whereas most of Korea’s increase in tertiary attainment occurred in the early 2000s, the opposite is the case for Portugal and Türkiye, where tertiary attainment grew faster between 2011 and 2021 than between 2000 and 2011 (Figure A1.1 and Table A1.2).

Although the timing varies somewhat across countries, the increase in tertiary attainment has been a nearly universal trend. Countries that started with low tertiary attainment levels in 2000 have experienced strong growth. The share of tertiary-educated 25-34 year-olds quadrupled in Türkiye, from 9% in 2000 to 40% in 2021. Similarly, rates increased from 13% to 47% in Portugal and from 11% to 39% in the Slovak Republic over the same period. However, countries that had already high tertiary attainment levels in 2000, such as Ireland and Korea, have also experienced strong growth between 2000 and 2021: from 30% to 63% in Ireland and from 37% to 69% in Korea (Figure A1.1).

Across the OECD, business, administration and law is the most common broad tertiary field of study. On average, 24% of the tertiary-educated 25-64 year-olds studied this field, followed by the arts or humanities, social sciences, journalism and information, at 18%. However, when taken together, the combined fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the most prevalent: in total, 25% of all 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment have studied a STEM field, with 16% having studied engineering, manufacturing and construction (Table A1.3).

Overall OECD averages do not reflect the situation in most individual countries, however, as the popularity of different fields of study varies widely across countries. For example, 1% of the 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment studied natural sciences, mathematics and statistics in Chile and Costa Rica, compared to 10% in the United States. Likewise, 10% of tertiary-educated individuals studied engineering, manufacturing and construction in Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg and the United States, while the share is 25% or more in Austria and Germany (Table A1.3).

On average across OECD countries, 13% of the 25-64 year-olds have a tertiary qualification in the field of health and welfare. Three Nordic countries present the highest rates for this indicator: Denmark (26%), Norway (21%) and Sweden (19%) (Figure A1.2).

While some of these differences are due to differences in the economic structure of countries and the resulting differences in labour-market demand for skills, this cannot explain all the variation in the prevalence of different fields of study. For example, 5% of tertiary-educated adults had studied education in France, Italy and the United Kingdom, compared with 21% in Hungary (Table A1.3). One might think that the field of education prepares students to become a teacher but this large range among OECD countries suggests that the same field of study can prepare people for different career paths in different countries. Indirectly, it can also imply that the acquisition of subject knowledge constitutes only a small fraction of the value of tertiary attainment in the labour market, while the acquisition of other skills is more important.

As tertiary attainment has become more common across OECD countries, the share of the population with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education as their highest level of attainment has declined. However, this decline has been less pronounced than the increase in tertiary attainment because of a parallel shift from below upper secondary attainment. As more young people have obtained upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualifications, this has compensated in part for the increasing numbers who have stayed on in education to tertiary level. In 2021, on average 39% of the population aged 25-34 had an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification as their highest level of educational attainment, which is only 4 percentage points less than 10 years earlier (Table A1.2).

Upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education remains the most common attainment level in countries where few young people leave formal education with below upper secondary attainment, but tertiary attainment rates remain comparatively low. This is the case in the Czech Republic (58% of 25-34 year-olds had an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment and 7% below upper secondary attainment) and a number of other European countries. In contrast, low levels of upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment are common both in countries with particularly low attainment levels as well as in those with particularly high ones. In Costa Rica and Mexico, for example, upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment is below 30% because a large share of the population only achieves below upper secondary attainment. In contrast, the share is also less than 30% in Canada and Korea, where at least two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds have obtained a tertiary qualification (Table A1.2).

Upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment has become essential for successful participation in a modern economy and society. Individuals without it struggle in the labour market and face worse social outcomes. While the share of younger adults with below upper secondary attainment has declined by 5 percentage points since 2011 on average across OECD countries, 14% still did not have an upper secondary education in 2021. It is highest in the OECD countries with the lowest per capita gross domestic product (GDP), Costa Rica (45%) and Mexico (44%). However, it is also high in some countries with significantly higher income levels, such as Italy (23 %) and Spain (28%). Among partner countries, Brazil is notable for having reduced its share of younger adults without upper secondary attainment from 43% in 2011 to 29% in 2021, despite an income level that is lower than that of any OECD country (Table A1.2).

Some countries have achieved near universal upper secondary attainment among younger adults. In Korea, only 2% of 25-34 year-olds have not attained at least an upper secondary education. Similarly, in Slovenia, the share is 4% and in Canada and Ireland it is 5% (Table A1.2). These numbers should encourage countries still struggling with higher rates of below secondary attainment among younger adults.

On average across OECD countries, the share of younger women (25-34 year-olds) with tertiary education (i.e. short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral) is 53% compared with 41% for men (Table A1.2). If only master’s and doctoral or equivalent attainment are considered, younger women still show a higher rate than younger men (OECD, 2022[2]).

While tertiary attainment is becoming more common for both men and women, the increase is particularly strong among women. As a consequence, women now make up a clear majority of 25-34 year-olds with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral or equivalent degree, at 57%. In contrast, gender ratios among 55-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment are nearly balanced, as 52% of adults in this group are women (Figure A1.3).

The increase in the share of women with at least a bachelor’s or equivalent degree has been a prominent trend across most OECD countries. It has been particularly strong in OECD and partner countries where women are under-represented in older cohorts. This has led to gender ratios converging across countries. Countries with a smaller share of women among 55-64 year-olds with a bachelor’s or equivalent degree have experienced a particularly strong intergenerational shift. In Türkiye, for example, only 34% of 55-64 year-olds who attained at least bachelor’s or equivalent level of education are women while the share has increased to 51% among 25-34 year-olds. As a consequence of this convergence in gender ratios, women make up more than half of all 25-34 year-olds with bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral or equivalent attainment in every OECD country except Japan. Similar increases can also be observed in the India, where female tertiary attainment (excluding short-cycle tertiary) is nearly at parity with the male tertiary attainment rate among younger adults (Figure A1.3). The change in India is particularly important as this country accounts for approximately one-fifth of the global population.

Although the educational advantage of women has increased at the upper end of the attainment spectrum, it has remained stable at the lower end. In 2021, on average across OECD countries, 12% of women and 16% of men aged 25-34 had below upper secondary attainment. This gender gap is the same as it was in 2011, as the shares of both younger women and younger men without upper secondary attainment have each declined by 5 percentage points over the past 10 years. Men now make up a larger share of the population of younger adults with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment (Table A1.2).

In most OECD countries, tertiary attainment rates vary widely across subnational regions. Among countries with available data, the share of the 25-64 year-olds with tertiary degrees frequently varies by a factor of two across regions. For example, in Spain, the shares range from 25% to 56%, while similar-sized differences exist in many other countries. This diversity within countries has important policy implications. For example, some regions within a country might face shortages of skilled workers, while in other regions workers with the same qualifications are unemployed. It is therefore important to look beyond national averages and develop policies that can adapt to regional contexts (Figure A1.4).

A notable pattern in many countries is exceptionally high tertiary attainment levels in the region that is home to the capital (Figure A1.4). Partly, this is due to the high number of tertiary-educated workers employed in national administrations, which have their seat in the capital regions. More importantly, however, it is because the capital region is often home to the largest city of a country. Urban areas tend to have higher rates of tertiary attainment than rural areas.

Cities have high levels of tertiary attainment for multiple reasons. Urban economies are characterised by a strong knowledge-intensive service sector, which provides job opportunities for tertiary-educated workers (OECD, 2019[3]). Moreover, wage levels in cities are higher than in rural areas even for workers in the same occupation and the differences are especially large for highly educated workers (Combes and Gobillon, 2015[4]). Thus, labour markets provide strong incentives for tertiary-educated workers to move to urban areas. These effects are amplified by the concentration of higher education institutions in cities. Tertiary students often move to cities to study there. After they graduate, many of them stay in the area and thereby contribute to a higher share of tertiary attainment in the region.

Age groups: Adults refer to 25-64 year-olds; younger adults refer to 25-34 year-olds; older adults refer to 55-64 year-olds.

Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education successfully completed by an individual.

Fields of study are categorised according to the ISCED Fields of education and training (ISCED-F 2013). See the Reader’s Guide for full listing of the ISCED fields used in this report.

Levels of education: See the Reader’s Guide at the beginning of this publication for a presentation of all ISCED 2011 levels.

Educational attainment profiles are based on annual data on the percentage of the adult population (25-64 year-olds) in specific age groups who have successfully completed a specified level of education.

In OECD statistics, recognised qualifications from ISCED 2011 level 3 programmes that are not of sufficient duration for ISCED 2011 level 3 completion are classified at ISCED 2011 level 2 (see the Reader’s Guide). Where countries have been able to demonstrate equivalencies in the labour-market value of attainment formally classified as the “completion of intermediate upper secondary programmes” – such as achieving five good General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) or equivalent in the United Kingdom (note that each GCSE is offered in a specific school subject) – and “full upper secondary attainment”, attainment of these programmes is reported as ISCED 2011 level 3 completion in the tables that show three aggregate levels of educational attainment (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012[5]).

Most OECD countries include people without formal education under the international classification ISCED 2011 level 0. Averages for the category “less than primary educational attainment” are therefore likely to be influenced by this inclusion.

Category totals for fields of study may not be equivalent to the sum of the subcategories because some programmes cannot be classified into a specific subcategory, but are included in the total. In addition, data on humanities (except languages), social sciences, journalism and information refer to the field social of sciences, journalism and information only in Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[6]) for more information and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2022_X3-A.pdf).

Data on population and educational attainment for most countries are taken from OECD and Eurostat databases, which are compiled from National Labour Force Surveys by the OECD Labour Market, Economic and Social Outcomes of Learning (LSO) Network. Data on educational attainment for China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are taken from the International Labour Organization (ILO) database.

Data on subnational regions for selected indicators are available in the OECD Regional Statistics Database (OECD, 2022[7]).

References

[4] Combes, P. and L. Gobillon (2015), “The empirics of agglomeration economies”, in Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics, Elsevier, https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-444-59517-1.00005-2.

[2] OECD (2022), Education at a Glance Database - Educational attainment and labour-force status, http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=EAG_NEAC (accessed on 20 July 2022).

[7] OECD (2022), OECD Regional Database - Education, https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=REGION_EDUCAT (accessed on 20 July 2022).

[3] OECD (2019), OECD Regional Outlook 2019: Leveraging Megatrends for Cities and Rural Areas, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264312838-en.

[6] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264304444-en.

[1] OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2016-en.

[5] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2012), International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 2011, UNESCO-UIS, Montreal, http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/international-standard-classification-of-education-isced-2011-en.pdf.

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Revised version, December 2022

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