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Reader’s guide

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Use of “higher education” in this report

The term “higher education” in this report includes Levels 4 through 8 of the 2011 International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012[1]). The correspondence between US and international higher education levels and terminology is provided in Table 1. The terms “higher education” and “post-secondary education” are used interchangeably in the report, as is commonly done in the United States.

This report focuses on sub-baccalaureate and baccalaureate levels, which include post-secondary (sub-baccalaureate) certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s programmes, which account for the majority of entrants to the US labour market. It focuses principally on programmes offered by public higher education institutions, since state governments bear responsibility for the legal and financial bases of their operation.

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Table 1. US and international educational levels

US terminology

ISCED 2011 levels and programme descriptions

Upper secondary education

High school diploma or equivalent (e.g. General Educational Development (GED) certificate)

Upper secondary education (ISCED Level 3): Programmes at ISCED Level 3 are typically designed to complete secondary education in preparation for tertiary education or provide skills relevant to employment, or both.

Sub-baccalaureate or sub-bachelor level

Post-secondary certificate programmes (also referred to as “certificates”)*, and often delivered by higher education institutions

Post-secondary non-tertiary education (ISCED Level 4): Programmes at ISCED Level 4, or post-secondary non-tertiary education, are typically designed to provide individuals who completed ISCED Level 3 with non-tertiary qualifications required for progression to tertiary education or for employment when their ISCED Level 3 qualification does not grant such access. For example, graduates from general ISCED Level 3 programmes may choose to complete a non-tertiary vocational qualification; or graduates from vocational ISCED Level 3 programmes may choose to increase their level of qualifications or specialise further.

Associate’s degree programmes**

Short-cycle tertiary education (ISCED Level 5): Programmes at ISCED Level 5 aim to provide professional knowledge, skills and competencies. Typically, they are practically based, occupationally specific and prepare students to enter the labour market, but may also provide a pathway to other higher education programmes. Academic higher education programmes below the bachelor’s level are also classified as ISCED Level 5. Programmes classified at ISCED Level 5 may be referred to as (higher) technical education, community college education, technician or advanced/higher vocational training, associate’s degree or the bac+2.

Baccalaureate level

Bachelor’s degree programmes

Bachelor’s or equivalent level (ISCED Level 6): Programmes at ISCED Level 6 aim to provide intermediate academic and/or professional knowledge, skills and competencies, leading to a first degree or equivalent qualification. Programmes are typically theoretically based, but may include practical components and are informed by research and/or best professional practice. Programmes at this level do not necessarily involve the completion of a research project or thesis, but if they do, it is less advanced, less independent or is undertaken with more guidance than those at ISCED Levels 7 or 8. Programmes classified at ISCED Level 6 may be referred to as bachelor’s programme, a license, or the first university cycle.

Post-baccalaureate level or post-graduate level

Master’s degree programmes

Master’s or equivalent level (ISCED Level 7): Programmes at ISCED Level 7 are designed to provide advanced academic and/or professional knowledge, skills and competencies, leading to a second degree or equivalent qualification. Typically, programmes at this level are theoretically based, but may include practical components and are informed by state-of-the-art research and/or best professional practice. Programmes at this level may involve the completion of a research project or thesis that is more advanced than those expected at ISCED Level 6 and less advanced than those expected at ISCED Level 8. Master’s programmes can be also entirely coursework-based in some countries, or there may be a differentiation between a coursework programme and a research programme. Programmes classified at ISCED Level 7 may be referred to in many ways, for example, master’s programmes, magister or MPhil.

Post-bachelor’s certificate programmes (or post-graduate certificates)

Professional degree programmes (for instance, Medical Doctor (M.D.), Juris Doctor (J.D.)

Doctoral degree programmes

Doctoral or equivalent level (ISCED Level 8): Programmes at ISCED Level 8 lead to an advanced research or qualification. Programmes at this ISCED Level are devoted to advanced study and original research, and are typically offered only by research-oriented higher education institutions, such as universities. Doctoral programmes exist in both academic and professional fields, and usually conclude with the submission and defence of a thesis, dissertation or equivalent written work of publishable quality, representing a significant contribution to knowledge in the respective field of study. In some education systems, ISCED Level 8 programmes contain very limited course work, or none at all, and individuals working towards a doctoral degree engage in research mostly independently or in small groups with varying degrees of supervision. Other countries require the completion of course work before the doctoral candidates can progress to the thesis component of the programme. Programme classified at ISCED Level 8 may be referred to in many ways, for example: PhD, DPhil, D.Lit., D.Sc., LL.D, Doctorate or similar terms.

Notes: *Post-secondary certificates vary in terms of length, from a few weeks to more than two years. They are most often less than a year or one to two years in length. They can be referred to as short or long certificates, less-than-two-year awards, and other terms. While the classroom training component of apprenticeship programme is often delivered by two-year colleges, licenses obtained by apprentices are not usually considered post-secondary qualifications. However, while not reflected in the table, apprenticeships are a pathway of growing interest in several states and are discussed in the report.

**Associate-level programmes are either academically oriented or prepare students for direct labour market entry. Academically oriented programmes are often called “transfer” programmes or stream, because students enrolled in these programmes aim to transfer the academic credits obtained through their associate’s degree toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree. The majority of students in associate’s degree programmes in the United States are enrolled in an academically oriented, or transfer, programme. Associate-level programmes that prepare students for labour market entry are referred to in different ways, such as technical or professional programmes or streams.

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2012[1]), OECD (2019[2]).

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Key terms used in the report

The report uses terminology that is specific to higher education in the United States. Some of the most commonly used terms are defined below.

  • Credit transfer: Credit transfer refers to the process by which students are able to have the credits acquired in one post-secondary programme applied towards the completion of another, typically more advanced programme. This most often applies to the transfer of credits obtained in a programme of study at a two-year institution towards a programme of study at a four-year institution. A wide variety of processes are in place in US states to support this process, from state-wide articulation agreements that aim to indicate which academic credits obtained in two-year institutions are expected to be recognised by four-year institutions to institution- and programme-specific requirements that determine whether students’ academic credits will be recognised towards a more advanced programme of study.

  • Non-resident alien: This term refers to international students. International students are not citizens or permanent residents of the United States and are in the country on a temporary basis.

  • Open access: Open access admissions, or non-selective admissions, are in place at most two-year colleges. They refer to a process by which students can enrol in an institution without having to demonstrate a set level of academic achievement or preparedness.

  • Post-secondary institutions: As described in Chapter 2, a wide range of higher education institutions exists in the United States. The most commonly used criteria to differentiate institutions include:

    • Control: In the US, post-secondary institutions can be public, private not-for-profit or private for-profit. Private for-profit institutions are sometimes also referred to as “proprietary institutions”. Private not-for-profit and private for-profit institutions are classified as independent private institutions (see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018 (2018[3]) for a definition) in international statistics.

    • Educational offerings: Two-year institutions mostly deliver programmes below the bachelor’s level and four-year institutions deliver programmes at bachelor’s and post-graduate level.

    Two-year institutions are often referred to as community colleges, although the term used may vary both between states and within states. Four-year institutions are referred to as either “universities” or “colleges”.

  • Qualifications, credentials and awards: These terms are commonly used in US higher education policy and practice, and may have different meanings depending on the context. In general, qualifications refer to certificates and degrees obtained in a post-secondary education institution. Credentials and awards are usually broader in scope, including post-secondary qualifications and “alternative credentials” that may be delivered by other providers, such as specialised training firms or employers. Alternative credentials are very diverse, encompassing industry certifications, micro-credentials, or digital badges (see Box 3.15 in Chapter 3).

  • Race and ethnicity: The report assesses post-secondary education participation and labour market outcomes according to several demographic variables, including race and ethnicity, which are self-reported categories available in many of the US data sources used in this report. While US data collections use several groups, those most commonly reported include Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino and White. Racial and ethnic categories are mutually exclusive. The “Black/African American” and “White” groups refer to non-Hispanic persons. For further details, readers should refer to technical documentation for the American Community Survey, compiled by IPUMS USA (n.d.[4]).

  • Skills: The report refers to three broad levels of skills: low, medium (also referred to as middle or mid-level), and high (also referred to as advanced). These levels refer to individuals’ ability to perform job tasks at different levels of complexity. While skills can be acquired in a variety of contexts, and despite limitations in associating skills and educational levels, educational qualifications are often used as a proxy for skills (OECD, 2019[5]). In addition, the US Occupation Information Network (O*NET) identifies a minimum level of education estimated to be necessary to fulfil job tasks in each occupational group. Thus, skills levels referenced in the report should be broadly understood as follows:

    • Low skills refer to the skills needed to perform a job that requires upper secondary education or less.

    • Medium (or mid-level, middle) skills refer to skills required to perform jobs usually requiring some form of post-secondary education (several months to two years).

    • High (or advanced) skills refer to skills required to perform jobs usually requiring a bachelor’s degree or above.

    The report also refers to transversal skills, a term that is used interchangeably with the term “transferable skills”. It refers to skills that are not job-specific but rather are used across a range of jobs and occupations. These skills can be cognitive (e.g. writing), socio-emotional (e.g. team work), or technical (e.g. programming).

  • Some college, no degree: The US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) tracks the population of individuals who report having completed some courses at the post-secondary level but who have not obtained a degree. This category includes both individuals who started but did not complete a post-secondary qualification and individuals who completed post-secondary qualifications shorter than associate’s degrees, such as certificates. There is no separate category in the American Community Survey permitting the identification of individuals whose highest educational attainment is a post-secondary certificate.

  • Standard Occupation Classification (SOC): The SOC system is used by US federal statistical agencies to classify workers and jobs into occupational categories. The SOC was last updated in 2018 and contains 23 major occupational groups. The report frequently refers to ten occupational groups in which jobs typically require post-secondary education based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational information. These include: 11-0000 (Management), 13-0000 (Business and Financial Operations), 15-0000 (Computer and Mathematical), 17-0000 (Architecture and Engineering), 19-0000 (Life, Physical, and Social Science), 21-0000 (Community and Social Service), 23-0000 (Legal Occupations), 25-0000 (Education, Training, and Library), 27-0000 (Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media), and 29-0000 (Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations).

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Sources of quantitative data

This report uses international, national and state data sources. OECD data are used for international comparisons in Chapter 1, which provides an overview of the United States labour market and higher education context, and in Chapter 3, which presents key graduate outcomes data for the United States and international jurisdictions. Colombia was not an OECD Member at the time of preparation of this publication. Accordingly, Colombia does not appear in the list of OECD Members and is not included in the zone aggregates. International data usually refers to higher education as encompassing ISCED Levels 5 to 8. When conducting international comparisons, these levels are used.

US national data sources are used throughout the report, including in state-specific chapters, as they permit comparisons between averages in the four states and the national average. The report principally uses databases from the following national sources:

  • The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2019[6])

  • The National Center of Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education System (2019[7])

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (2019[8])

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey (2019[9])

Each state chapter uses a range of state-specific data sources. These data are generally produced by government agencies responsible for higher education and workforce policies, and by other organisations, such as certain higher education sub-systems (e.g. the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges in Washington produces data for community colleges). These data are most often publicly available in reports and interactive dashboards. In some cases, indicated in the report, state agencies provided additional data not readily available via public sources to the OECD team.

Non-governmental sources are also used when relevant, including data from Lumina Foundation, the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, the Education Commission for the States, or the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Detailed information on the sources and definitions used in the two comparative tables provided in Chapter 3 can be found in Annex B.

Data updates

This report makes use of the most recent data available at the time of its preparation. Data extracted from national databases were updated as of 31 December 2019, except when otherwise noted. State-specific data are based on reports that were used at the time of drafting.

Symbols for missing data

Two following symbols are used in case of missing data:

  • a Data are not applicable (for example, certain categories used in US data do not exist in international data collections).

  • m Data are missing.

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Source of qualitative information

Extensive qualitative information was collected to prepare this report. The sources include:

  • Background reports provided to the OECD by the state agencies responsible for higher education in the participating states: the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), and the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC).

  • Written and oral comments from staff at the ODHE, THECB, SCHEV and WSAC on draft chapters and documents prepared by the OECD during the course of the project.

  • Interviews and workshops with stakeholders in the four participating states. These are described in Annex A of this report.


[4] IPUMS USA (n.d.), IPUMS Documentation: User’s Guide, (accessed on 15 April 2020).

[7] NCES (2019), Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (database), National Center for Education Statistics, (accessed on 18 January 2020).

[2] OECD (2019), Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance, Higher Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[5] OECD (2019), The Survey of Adult Skills, Reader’s Companion, Third Edition, OECD Publishing, Paris,

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

[9] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), Labor force statistics from the current population survey, (accessed on 12 March 2020).

[8] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), Occupation Employment Statistics, (accessed on 26 August 2019).

[6] U.S. Census Bureau (2019), American Community Survey 2018 (database), (accessed on 18 January 2020).

[1] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2012), International Standard Classification of Education, (accessed on 7 April 2020).

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