Indicator A1. To what level have adults studied?

Education is an asset not only because of its intrinsic value, but also because it provides individuals with skills and acts as a signal of such skills. As a result, investments in education yield high returns later in life (OECD, 2020[3]). Yet, there are differences across countries in educational attainment. On average across OECD countries, 40% of adults (25-64 year-olds) have a tertiary credential as their highest level of education, another 40% have attained upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, while 20% have not obtained an upper secondary education (Table A1.1.). However, differences among OECD countries are large: more than 50% of adults in Costa Rica, Mexico and Türkiye lack an upper secondary qualification, while more than 60% of adults in Canada have a tertiary credential (Figure A1.2).

As upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education has become more important for participation in modern economies, the share of those with below upper secondary education has declined, albeit unevenly. Among younger adults (25-34 year-olds), it has fallen by 4 percentage points for men and 4 percentage points for women from 2015 to 2022 on average across OECD countries. However, 16% of younger men and 12% of young women still did not have an upper secondary education in 2022. Among OECD countries, these percentages are highest in Costa Rica (46% of young men and 37% of young women) and Mexico (43% of young men and 43% of young women). Portugal has seen the largest decrease in the share of young men without an upper secondary qualification, from 40% in 2015 to 20% in 2022, while for young women, the biggest fall over that period has been in Türkiye, from 52% to 34% (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 an upper secondary education. Similarly, in both Canada and Slovenia, the shares are 6% for young men and 3% for young women, 7% and 5% in the United States, and 5% for both young men and women in Ireland (Table A1.2).

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 education to upper secondary attainment. In 2022, on average 44% of men and 35% of women aged 25-34 had an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification as their highest level of education, which is only 2 percentage points less than in 2015 for men and 3 percentage points less for women (Table A1.2).

Upper secondary education programmes can be divided into two categories by their orientation: general programmes aim to prepare students for tertiary education, while vocational ones focus mainly on preparing them for labour-market entry (although some vocational programmes also commonly act as a route to tertiary education). Some countries do not have a distinct vocational track at upper secondary level, or have upper secondary vocational programmes that mostly target those who have completed initial education (Box A1.1). In most countries, post-secondary non-tertiary education is mainly vocationally oriented (Table A1.3).

Progression through education is not always linear. Some students with a tertiary degree may go on to pursue an additional qualification at the same or lower level as their highest qualification. For example, according to a recent study in Canada, pathways from a bachelor’s or equivalent degree to a lower level of education frequently involve upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary or short-cycle tertiary education that are related to the bachelor’s or equivalent degree but are more specific and focused. For example, they might go from social sciences or psychology to human resources management, from English to public relations and advertising, or from natural science to specific health fields. In some cases, these college programmes are taken by people with bachelor’s or equivalent degrees that typically have very strong labour-market outcomes: for example, a registered nursing specialisation college programme (e.g. neonatal nursing) following a bachelor’s or equivalent degree in registered nursing (Table A2.5 and (Wall, 2021[4])).

Among OECD countries where the qualification exists, the share of younger adults with vocational upper secondary attainment varies widely across OECD countries. On average across OECD countries, 20% of 25-34 year-olds have vocational upper secondary education as their highest level of education. In Mexico, 1% of younger adults have this level of educational attainment, while in Finland and Slovenia the share is almost 40%, and it reaches 48% in the Slovak Republic (Figure A1.1).

Vocational post-secondary non-tertiary attainment also varies widely. The share of 25-34 year-olds who have a vocational post-secondary non-tertiary education as their highest qualification averages 6% across OECD countries. In Costa Rica, Finland, the Netherlands and Spain, less than 1% of younger adults have this level of educational attainment while the figure is 15% or more in Germany and New Zealand (Figure A1.1).

On average, among 25-34 year-olds, vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualifications are more common than general qualifications at this level (23 versus 18%). However, there are a few exceptions: general upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment exceeds vocational attainment among younger adults by 30 percentage points or more in Chile and Israel, by about 25 percentage points in Costa Rica and Mexico, and by about 10 percentage points in Canada (Table A1.3).

Men aged 25-34 are over-represented among those with vocational attainment compared with women, accounting for 60% of the population with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary vocational attainment (Figure A1.4). However, in Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, women account for more than 50% of 25-34 year-olds with this educational attainment, while their share is less than 30% in Canada (Figure A1.4).

Students in vocational education may have the opportunity to gain experience in the labour market as part of the curriculum during their studies, and thus to acquire relevant skills and knowledge alongside their studies. As shown in Box A1.2, among the 20-34 year-olds with vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, only 28% gained 7 months or more of work experience (paid or unpaid) while studying on average across the OECD countries participating in the European Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS). Again, the differences among countries are large: the rate exceeds 80% in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, but does not reach 20% in most of the other OECD and accession countries taking part in EU- LFS (Figure A1.3).

Rising educational attainment is strongly reflected in the increases in tertiary attainment rates over the past few decades. On average across OECD countries, the share of 25-34 year-old men with a tertiary degree (i.e. short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral or equivalent) has increased from 36% in 2015 to 41% in 2022. Among women of that age, the share has risen from 47% to 54%. In seven OECD countries, more than half of all 25-34 year-old men have a tertiary degree in 2022, and this is the case for women in all but twelve OECD countries. There are eight OECD countries where tertiary attainment among younger men is below 30% and the rate is lower than 30% for younger women only in Mexico (Table A1.2).

Some countries are expanding their VET provision at tertiary level. In Germany, for example, the Excellence initiative for VET aims to increase the attractiveness of VET programmes at tertiary level. In addition, some vocational qualifications in Germany are now equivalent to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. As there is no internationally agreed definition of the orientation of educational programmes at tertiary level (see Textbox in Indicator B5), the following analysis focuses exclusively on short-cycle tertiary programmes.

On average across OECD countries, 8% of 25-34 year-olds have a short-cycle tertiary degree as their highest attainment, but the share varies widely across countries. In seven OECD countries, the share is less than 1% of younger adults, while it exceeds 20% in Canada and Korea. In Austria, it is the most common attainment level among tertiary-educated 25-34 year-olds (Table A1.3).

There is no clear pattern by gender on short-cycle tertiary attainment among 25-34 year-olds. On average there is not a large gender gap across OECD and partner countries with data for this level of education, but this conceals wider differences in some countries. In Japan, Indonesia and the Netherlands, women make up 65% or more of younger adults with this level of education as their highest qualification, while in Italy and New Zealand it is men who account for 60% or more. As for any category of tertiary education, the gender ratio depends on the fields that are offered (Figure A1.4 and see Indicator A3 in (OECD, 2022[5])).

In most countries where short-cycle tertiary education exists, it is exclusively vocationally oriented. However, in some countries, such as Canada, Norway and the United States, short-cycle tertiary degrees combine or offer both general and vocational programmes. Argentina and Türkiye only have general short-cycle tertiary programmes (Table A1.3). On average across OECD countries, 6% of 25-34 year-olds have a vocational short-cycle tertiary degree as their highest attainment. In nearly one-third of OECD countries, less than 2% of younger adults have this level of educational attainment but it exceeds 10% in a similar proportion of countries and exceeds 20% in Canada and Korea (Figure A1.1).

The nature and sectoral coverage of programmes offered at this level varies considerably across countries and is reflected in attainment data. For example, in the Czech Republic short-cycle tertiary education is limited to a specific programme in the performing arts (conservatoire programmes in music, singing and drama). In Germany short-cycle tertiary education only covers short master craftsman programmes, while longer master craftsman programmes are offered at bachelor’s or equivalent level. In contrast, in Austria short-cycle tertiary level includes both master craftsman programmes and years 4-5 in higher technical and vocational colleges, which follow-up on three-year upper secondary vocational programmes in the same colleges. They target a wide range of fields, from technology to business administration and artistic design. Canada also has a large short-cycle tertiary sector, which plays an important role in developing occupational skills, as upper secondary education is predominantly general and, with the exception of Quebec, there are no distinct vocational tracks at that level. Short-cycle tertiary education includes a wide range of programmes, such as undergraduate certificates, college diplomas and applied certificates in a variety of fields including business, health and technology (OECD, 2022[6]). In Canada, community colleges provide short-cycle tertiary education. Among the qualifications individuals can obtain are: wilderness first-aid, baking and pastry, electronic systems engineering technology, and child and youth care (Skolnik, 2021[7]).

National level data often hide significant regional inequalities. For instance, in Colombia, the share of 25-64 year-olds with below upper secondary attainment varies from 6% in Nariño to 57% in Cauca, a difference of more than 50 percentage points. In Canada, Portugal and Türkiye, the difference between the regions with the largest and the smallest shares of adults with below upper secondary attainment is 30 percentage points or higher (OECD, 2023[8]).

The region containing the capital city tends to have a smaller share of adults with lower educational attainment than other regions in a country. This is the case for both upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment and below upper secondary attainment. The capital region has the smallest share of adults in both these categories in 20 out of 34 countries with available data. In contrast, in Belgium, the Brussels Capital Region has the highest share (22%) of adults with below upper secondary attainment. In Ankara region in Türkiye, about one in four adults (23%) have upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, which is the highest share across regions (OECD, 2023[8]).

In most OECD countries, overall tertiary attainment rates vary widely across subnational regions. Among countries with available data, the share of 25-64 year-olds with tertiary degrees frequently varies by a factor of two across regions. For example, in Spain, the shares range from 23% to 56%, while similar-sized differences exist in many other countries.

In contrast, short-cycle tertiary attainment is relatively homogeneous across subnational regions. Among countries with available data, the United States has the largest difference in the share of the 25-64 year-olds with short-cycle tertiary attainment between two regions, with a 14 percentage point difference between the District of Columbia (3%) and North Dakota (17%). In Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the difference does not exceed 5 percentage points (OECD, 2023[8]).

Diversity in attainment within countries has important policy implications. For example, some regions within a country might face shortages of skilled workers, while in others, workers with the same qualifications are unemployed. It is therefore important to look beyond national averages and develop policies that can be adapted to regional contexts (OECD, 2023[8]).

Just as they tend to have smaller shares of adults with lower attainment, in many countries the capital region has exceptionally high tertiary attainment levels. 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, the capital region is often home to the country’s largest city. Urban areas are also more likely to host universities and tend to have higher rates of tertiary attainment than rural areas.

When interpreting the results for subnational entities, readers should take into account that their population size can vary widely within countries. For example, in 2022, in Canada, the population of Nunavut is 40 526 people, while the population for the province of Ontario it is 15 109 400 people (OECD, 2023[8]).

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

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

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

Vocational programmes: The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 2011) defines vocational programmes as education programmes that are designed for learners to acquire the knowledge, skills and competencies specific to a particular occupation, trade, or class of occupations or trades. Such programmes may have work-based components (e.g. apprenticeships and dual-system education programmes). Successful completion of such programmes leads to vocational qualifications relevant to the labour market and acknowledged as occupationally oriented by the relevant national authorities and/or the labour market.

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-UIS, 2012[9]).

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.

For more information see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[10]) and Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[2]).

Data on population and educational attainment for most countries are taken from OECD 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 Argentina, the People’s Republic of China, India, Indonesia and South Africa are taken from the International Labour Organization (ILO) database.

Data on the distribution of young adults with vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, by type of work experience while studying are from EU-LFS for all countries participating in this survey.

Data on subnational regions for selected indicators are available in the OECD Regional Statistics Database (OECD, 2023[8]).


[2] OECD (2023), Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[8] OECD (2023), OECD Regional Database - Education, (accessed on 20 July 2022).

[5] OECD (2022), Education at a Glance 2022: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] OECD (2022), Pathways to Professions: Understanding Higher Vocational and Professional Tertiary Education Systems, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[3] OECD (2020), Labour Market Relevance and Outcomes of Higher Education in Four US States: Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington, Higher Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[10] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[1] OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[7] Skolnik, M. (2021), “Canada’s high rate of short-cycle tertiary education attainment: a reflection of the role of its community colleges in vocational education and training”, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, Vol. 73/4,

[9] UNESCO-UIS (2012), International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 2011, UNESCO-UIS, Montreal,

[4] Wall, K. (2021), “Completion of a college certificate or diploma after a bachelor’s degree”, Insights on Canadian Society,

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