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 also 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 that stem from countries’ different social and economic structure as well as from the institutional features of their education system (Müller and Kogan, 2009[4]).

On average across OECD countries, 41% of adults (25-64 year-olds) have an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary degree as their highest level of education, compared to 21% who have not obtained such a degree and 39% who have a tertiary degree (Figure A1.3).

On average across OECD countries, the share of adults with below upper secondary attainment as their highest level of education has decreased from 27% in 2010 to 20% in 2020. The decrease has been more remarkable for women than for men: from 27% to 20% for women and from 26% to 22% for men over the last decade. For adults with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, the decrease was only 3 percentage points: from 44% in 2010 to 41% in 2020. This decrease has run parallel to the expansion of tertiary education witnessed for adult education over the last decade; it increased 9 percentage points (from 30% to 39%) and is higher for women (11 percentage points; from 31% in 2010 to 42% in 2020) than for men (7 percentage points; from 28% to 35%) (OECD, 2021[5]).

Attaining upper secondary education has become a minimum requirement for navigating the modern economy and society. Young people today who leave school before completing upper secondary education not only face difficulties in the labour market, but also tend to have lower social connectedness than their higher educated peers (OECD, 2019[6]).

Despite the educational expansion experienced over the past decades, on average across OECD countries, in 2020, 21% of adults (25-64 year-olds) still do not have an upper secondary degree. And in Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey, the most attained level of education for the adult population is below upper secondary (Figure A1.3).

On average across OECD countries, in 2020, 15% of younger adults (25-34 year-olds) still do not have an upper secondary degree, compared to 29% of older adults (55-64 year-olds). In most OECD countries, the majority of younger adults (25-34 year-olds) have attained at least upper secondary education. However, in Costa Rica, Mexico and Turkey, the percentage of young adults with below upper secondary attainment as their highest level of education is more than 40% (Figure A1.2 and Table A1.4, available on line).

On average across OECD countries, the share of younger adults with below upper secondary attainment as their highest level of education has decreased from 20% in 2010 to 15% in 2020. The decrease has been more remarkable in countries which initially had a high share of younger adults with below upper secondary attainment. For example, in Costa Rica, Mexico and Turkey, more than 50% of 25-34 year-olds had not attained upper secondary education in 2010 and, although they are still lagging behind the OECD average, this share has dropped by at least 10 percentage points over the last decade. In the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Sweden, the proportion of younger adults with below upper secondary attainment has increased over the last decade, but the percentages in these countries are still rather low in 2020: 8%, 8% and 16%, respectively (Table A1.2 and Figure A1.2).

In most OECD and partner countries, young men are more likely than young women to lack an upper secondary qualification, with an OECD average of 16% for young men and 13% for young women. The gender gap is 10 percentage points or higher in Iceland and Spain. Indonesia and Turkey are the exceptions, where the share of young women with below upper secondary attainment is about 3 percentage points higher than the share of young men with the same educational attainment. In addition, in about one-fifth of OECD and partner countries with comparable data for 2010 and 2020 – Canada, Costa Rica, Iceland, Mexico, South Africa – the gender gap has increased over the last decade (Table A1.2).

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1. Year of reference differs from 2020. Refer to the source table for more details.

Countries are ranked in descending order of the share of 25-34 year-olds with below upper secondary attainment.

Source: OECD (2021), Table A1.2. See Source section for more information and Annex 3 for notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterA.pdf).

On average across OECD countries, 41% of adults (25-64 year-olds) have an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary degree as their highest level of education. However, countries show very different shares; it is below 25% in Costa Rica, Luxembourg, Mexico, Spain and Turkey. Sometimes this low percentage is balanced with a high percentage of adults with tertiary attainment (Figure A1.3).

Among OECD countries, the share of 25-34 year-olds with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education as their highest level of attainment ranges from 23% in Costa Rica to 59% in the Czech Republic. On average across the OECD, this share has fallen, from 44% in 2010 to 40% in 2020, as younger adults are more likely to pursue tertiary education than they were a decade ago. However, upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment represents the most commonly attained level of education among 25-34 year-olds in 14 OECD countries: Austria, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia (Table A1.2).

A gender difference is also observed among 25-34 year-olds with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment. Across OECD countries, on average, 45% of younger men (25-34 year-olds) have this level of education as their highest attainment, while the share is 10 percentage points lower among younger women (35%). In 2010, this difference was smaller, at six percentage points (47% for younger men and 41% for younger women) (Table A1.2). The share of younger women with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education as their highest level of attainment is lower than that of younger men because the pattern is reversed for tertiary education. On average across OECD countries in 2020, the difference between the share of 25-34 year-old women and men with tertiary attainment is 13 percentage points, in favour of women (Table A1.2).

On average across OECD countries, 39% of adults have tertiary attainment. Across OECD and partner countries, this percentage ranges from 20% or less in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico and South Africa to 50% or more in Canada, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Korea, the Russian Federation and the United States (Figure A1.3).

The share of 25-34 year-olds with a tertiary degree has increased between 2010 and 2020 in all OECD and partner countries with available data for both years. The OECD average has increased by 9 percentage points, from 37% in 2010 to 45% in 2020. In Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland and Turkey, the increase is 15 percentage points or more (Table A1.2).

From a gender perspective, younger women (25-34 year-olds) are more likely than men to attain tertiary education in all OECD countries. On average across the OECD, 52% of younger women have a tertiary degree, compared to 39% of younger men, and the average gender gap in favour of younger women has widened between 2010 and 2020. Among countries with comparable data between 2010 and 2020, only in Costa Rica, France, Finland, Latvia and the United States has the gender gap narrowed over the last decade (Table A1.2). However, the aggregate data mask important gender disparities in fields of study: in most countries, women dominate in health and welfare, but are under-represented in the broad field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (OECD, 2019[6]).

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1. Year of reference differs from 2020. Refer to the source table for more details.

2. Data for upper secondary attainment include completion of a sufficient volume and standard of programmes that would be classified individually as completion of intermediate upper secondary programmes (12% of adults aged 25-64 are in this group).

Countries are ranked in ascending order of the share of 25-64 year-olds with below upper secondary attainment.

Source: OECD (2021), Table A1.1. See Source section for more information and Annex 3 for notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterA.pdf).

In most OECD and partner countries, the largest share of tertiary-educated 25-64 year-olds have attained a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, though the share varies substantially across countries. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain, those with a master’s degree represent a larger share than bachelor's share (Table A1.1). For some countries, this might be related to their strong tradition of long first-degree programmes that lead directly to a master’s degree (OECD, 2019[6]), while for the Russian Federation it is related to the fact that the implementation of programmes leading to a university bachelor’s degree is relatively recent.

The largest differences among countries for tertiary levels are seen for short-cycle educational attainment. On average across OECD countries, 7% of 25-64 year-olds have a short-cycle tertiary degree as their highest educational attainment, but the share is less than 1% in the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland and the Slovak Republic while it exceeds 20% in Canada and Japan. In Austria, Canada and France, the most common attainment among tertiary-educated 25-64 year-olds is a short-cycle degree (Table A1.1).

In all OECD countries, more women than men have attained tertiary education overall (Figure A1.1), but the share of women tends to decrease the higher the level of tertiary education. On average, women account for 56% of adults with a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, 54% among adults with a master’s or equivalent degree, and 45% of those with doctoral or equivalent degree. This pattern does not hold true for Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and the United States, where the share of women is the highest among adults with a master’s or equivalent degree (Figure A1.4).

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Note: Data are not available for some tertiary levels of education because they are included in another category. Refer to Table A1.1 for more details.

1. Year of reference differs from 2020. Refer to Education at a Glance Database for more details.

Countries are ranked in descending order of the share of women among all 25-64 year-olds with a bachelor's or equivalent degree.

Source: OECD (2021), Education at a Glance Database, http://stats.oecd.org. See Source section for more information and Annex 3 for notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterA.pdf).

For the younger adults (25-34 year-olds), on average across OECD countries, 45% have tertiary attainment. In all OECD and partner countries, except India, tertiary attainment is higher among younger women than among younger men. On average across OECD countries, 52% of 25-34 year-old women have tertiary attainment, compared to 39% of 25-34 year-old men, representing a 13 percentage-point difference. In Germany, Mexico and Turkey, the share of tertiary-educated younger adults is similar between men and women, while in Estonia, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia the difference in favour of women is 20 percentage points or more (Figure A1.1).

As foreign-born adults make up 17% of the population 25-64 years old on average across OECD countries, it is important for countries to know the general human capital of their foreign-born population. Educational attainment levels of native-born and foreign-born adults vary greatly across OECD countries. On average, the percentage of adults with below upper secondary attainment is 19% and 22% for native- and foreign-born adults respectively; the percentage for upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment is 44% and 37%; and for tertiary attainment 37% and 41% (Table A1.3).

On average across the OECD, foreign-born adults account for 22% of all adults with below upper secondary attainment, 14% among those attaining upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, and 18% among tertiary-educated adults. In most OECD countries, foreign-born adults have the highest share among all adults for having attained below upper secondary education. Only in Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand and the United Kingdom can the opposite be observed: the share of foreign-born adults among all adults with a given level of educational attainment is the highest among tertiary-educated adults (Figure A1.5).

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Note: The percentage in square brackets represents the share of foreign-born adults among all 25-64 year-olds.

1. Year of reference differs from 2020. Refer to Education at a Glance Database for more details.

Countries are ranked in descending order of the share of foreign-born adults among all 25-64 year-olds with below upper secondary attainment.

Source: OECD (2021), Table A1.3 and Education at a Glance Database, http://stats.oecd.org. See Source section for more information and Annex 3 for notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterA.pdf).

Age at arrival in the country also has different associations across OECD countries. In Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg and Switzerland, the share of adults with tertiary attainment is more than 10 percentage points higher among those who arrived in the country after age 15 compared to those who arrived before that age, while in Hungary and Sweden the share of adults with tertiary attainment is about 10 percentage points lower among those who arrived in the country after age 15 (Table A1.3).

The only element that shows some consistency across OECD countries is that the share of tertiary-educated adults among native-born and foreign-born adults tends to follow the overall country pattern. In Canada, for example, the share of tertiary-educated adults is high among native-born adults (56%), and is even higher among foreign-born adults (70%), regardless of their age at arrival in the country. In Italy, the opposite situation is observed: the share of tertiary-educated adults is generally low, regardless of whether they are native-born (21%) or foreign-born (13%) and regardless of their age at arrival in the country. Similarly, in countries with a high share of adults with below upper secondary attainment, this share will be large for both the native- and the foreign-born population (Table A1.3).

Evidence from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that in most countries and economies, immigrant students (including students born in the country with parents born abroad) scored lower in PISA 2018 than non-immigrants, but after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in a small group of countries and economies, immigrant students outperformed their native-born peers. This was the case in Australia; Hong Kong (China), Saudi Arabia; and the United States. In Canada, Israel, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, the difference in reading performance between immigrant and non-immigrant students was not statistically significant after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile (OECD, 2019[7]).

National level data often hide important regional inequalities. For instance, in Brazil, the share of adults aged 25-64 with below upper secondary attainment varies from 30% in the Federal District to 67% in Alagoas, a difference of more than 35 percentage points. In Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey, the differences in the share between the region with the largest and the region with the lowest shares of adults with below upper secondary education exceeds 30 percentage points (OECD, 2021[8]).

In most OECD and partner countries and economies, capital city regions concentrate large shares of highly educated people. In 30 out of 34 OECD and partner countries with available data and at least 2 subnational regions, the highest share of 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment is found in the capital region. In the Russian Federation, three out of four adults in the capital region have attained tertiary attainment (city of Moscow: 75%), and in the United States and the United Kingdom, two out of three adults have done so (Greater London: 68%, District of Columbia: 67%). An exception to these general patterns are found in Israel, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, where the highest share of adults with tertiary attainment is found outside the capital region (OECD, 2021[8]).

Many countries with relatively high tertiary attainment rates have strong regional inequalities. For example, in United States, the tertiary attainment rate at the national level in 2019 was 48%, ranging from 32% to 67% across regions, one of the widest disparities across OECD and partner countries. In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, the difference in the share of people with tertiary attainment between the region with the highest share and the region with the lowest share exceeds 30 percentage points. On the other hand, in a few countries, often with a smaller number of subnational regions, the differences in the share between the region with the largest share of adults with tertiary attainment and the region with the lowest share is much less. The smallest difference can be found in Belgium and Ireland, respectively with a 10 and 8 percentage-point gap (OECD, 2021[8]).

In contrast to the over-representation of adults with tertiary attainment in the capital city region, adults with lower educational attainment levels are more likely to be over-represented outside the region with the capital city. This is the case for both adults with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment and those with below upper secondary attainment. Adults in these groups display even the lowest share in the capital region in 20 out of 34 countries. In contrast, in Belgium, Brussels Capital Region concentrates the highest share (27%) of adults with below upper secondary attainment across Belgian regions. In the Mexico City region, about one out of three adults (30%) have upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment, which is the highest share across regions (OECD, 2021[8]).

When interpreting the results on subnational entities, readers should take into account that the population size of subnational entities can vary widely within countries. For example, in 2020, in Canada, the population aged 15 and over of Nunavut is 26 894, while the population aged 15 and over of the province of Ontario is 12 217 700 (OECD, 2021[9]).

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.

Completion of intermediate programmes for educational attainment (ISCED 2011) corresponds to a recognised qualification from an ISCED 2011 level programme that is not considered sufficient for ISCED 2011 level completion and is classified at a lower ISCED 2011 level. In addition, this recognised qualification does not give direct access to an upper ISCED 2011 level programme.

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.

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” (e.g. achieving five good GCSEs (note that each GCSE, General Certificate of Secondary Education, qualification is offered in a specific school subject) or equivalent in the United Kingdom) 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[10]).

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.

When interpreting the results on subnational entities, readers should take into account that the population size of subnational entities can vary widely within countries. For example, in 2020, in Canada, the population aged 15 and over of Nunavut is 26 894, while the population aged 15 and over of the province of Ontario is 12 217 700 (OECD, 2021[9]). Also, regional disparities tend to be higher when more subnational entities are used in the analysis.

Please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2017[11])for more information and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterA.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 Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are taken from the International Labour Organization (ILO) database, and data for China are from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) database.

Data on subnational regions for selected indicators are available in the OECD Regional Statistics (database) (OECD, 2021[8]).

References

[4] Müller, W. and I. Kogan (2009), “Education”, in Handbook of European Societies, Springer New York, New York, NY, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-88199-7_9.

[5] OECD (2021), Education at a Glance Database - Educational attainment and labour-force status, http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=EAG_NEAC (accessed on 17 June 2021).

[2] OECD (2021), Population (indicator), https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/d434f82b-en (accessed on 17 June 2021).

[8] OECD (2021), “Regional education”, OECD Regional Statistics (database), https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/213e806c-en (accessed on 25 June 2021).

[9] OECD (2021), Regional labour: Working age population, http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=REGION_LABOUR (accessed on 17 June 2021).

[1] OECD (2020), International Migration Outlook 2020, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/ec98f531-en.

[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, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/38361454-en.

[6] OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en.

[7] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume II), OECD, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/b5fd1b8f-en.

[11] OECD (2017), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264279889-en.

[10] 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.

Disclaimers

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