Indicator B4. Who enters tertiary education?

Tertiary education is the most flexible and diverse level of education today, with a vast array of programmes on offer, from professional courses that provide students with practical skills to enter the labour market directly, to research-oriented degrees that prepare students for doctoral studies and academia. As a non-compulsory level of education, there is a variety of different pathways for those who wish to pursue further education after secondary school and students may engage in other personal or professional activities before starting their tertiary education.

In some countries, not all vocational upper secondary programmes provide eligibility to enter tertiary education. On average across OECD countries, 19% of upper secondary vocational students are enrolled in programmes which do not provide direct access into tertiary education (see Indicator B1). However, entering tertiary education is becoming more and more common among all young adults. Over the past two decades, the proportion of 25-34 year-olds who have attained a tertiary degree has increased by more than 20 percentage points to 47% (see Indicator A1 and Education at a Glance Database).

A large majority of first-time entrants to tertiary education enrol in bachelor’s programmes. Across the OECD, 76% of first-time entrants into tertiary programmes in 2021 were bachelor’s students compared to 75% in 2015. In Greece, the share is 100%, as bachelor’s programmes are the only pathway into tertiary education, while in many other countries, the share is above or close to 90% (Table B4.1).

Countries with below-average shares of bachelor’s students among first-time entrants usually have well-developed short-cycle tertiary programmes. These programmes are designed to provide participants with professional knowledge, skills and competencies and usually last 2-3 years. Typically, they are occupation specific and prepare students to enter the labour market directly. Short-cycle tertiary students made up 19% of all first-time entrants to tertiary education in 2021, almost unchanged from 2015. This makes it the second most common route into tertiary education on average across OECD countries after bachelor’s programmes (Table B4.1).

Figure B4.1 shows that countries vary widely in the prevalence of short-cycle tertiary programmes. In some, more than one-third of all tertiary students enter tertiary education through such programmes. In Austria and Türkiye, they have even become the most common entry route. In contrast, in other countries the share of short-cycle tertiary students among first-time entrants is well below 10% and there is a considerable number of OECD countries that do not offer any short-cycle tertiary programmes.

Given the diverse nature of short-cycle programmes and their different roles within tertiary education systems, it is not surprising that the outcomes from short-cycle tertiary education also differ across countries. In general, the employment rates and wages of 25-34 year-olds with short-cycle tertiary degrees tend to be lower than those with bachelor’s degrees. However, in some countries, such as Norway, wages are higher for workers with short-cycle tertiary degrees (see Indicators A3 and A4). Moreover, even if labour-market outcomes are slightly less positive for workers with short-cycle tertiary degrees than with bachelor’s degrees, it can make economic sense to choose these programmes. Their shorter duration means the direct costs and the foregone earnings from participating in them are lower than they would be for four-year programmes.

Master’s long first-degree programmes are the third possible route into tertiary education. These programmes typically last 5-7 years and are often offered in highly specialised professional subjects, such as medicine. Accounting for just 10% of all first-time entrants on average, a slight decline from 11% in 2015, they are by far the least common option. Two notable exceptions are Romania and Sweden, where more than one-quarter of all first-time entrants enter a master’s long first-degree programme and where the popularity of such programmes has increased since 2015 (Table B4.1).

Many factors influence students’ future career aspirations and their choice of field of study, including their parents and other role models, career guidance given in schools, internship experiences, and the opportunities available in the labour market (Hofer, Zhivkovikj and Smyth, 2020[3]). The choice of field of study is important as tertiary students gain specialised skills and knowledge, which can open doors to certain career paths.

In 2021, 27% of new entrants chose one of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields (Education at a Glance Database). Taken together, these fields were the most common choice of field of study followed by business, administration and law, chosen by 24% of all students, health and welfare (14% of students), the arts and humanities (10%), and social sciences and journalism (10%). As a large majority of new entrants enrol in bachelor’s programmes, it is not surprising that the distribution of new entrants into bachelor’s programmes by field of study is very similar to the overall distribution of fields of study.

Figure B4.2 shows that across the OECD, short-cycle tertiary students also show similar patterns for fields of study, with two exceptions. Services are chosen by 12% of new entrants into short-cycle tertiary programmes compared to just 4% of those at bachelor’s level. In contrast, social sciences and journalism are very rare among short-cycle tertiary students with just 2% of all new entrants choosing this field. Among first-time entrants into master’s programmes, health and welfare dominates with over half of students choosing this field. This can be explained by the prevalence of long first degree programmes in health and welfare in many OECD countries. As these figures are unweighted averages of all OECD countries with available data, it is important to keep in mind that they can be influenced by countries with very few students in a particular level of education. For example, 48% of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes in Germany choose the field of services. This has driven up the corresponding overall OECD average, even though short-cycle tertiary students make up only 1% of first-time new entrants to tertiary education in Germany.

The nature of short-cycle tertiary programmes and their role within tertiary education systems varies greatly across countries. This explains the significant differences in the distribution of new entrants by field of study at this level. For example, in the Czech Republic, the only short-cycle tertiary programmes on offer are for students of the performing arts. Thus, 100% of new entrants into short-cycle tertiary education in the Czech Republic have chosen the field of arts and humanities. In contrast, in Norway, short-cycle tertiary programmes are predominantly used to acquire a master craftsman qualification in technical fields, so 69% of all new entrants at that level enrol in a STEM field (Table B4.).

At bachelor’s level, cross-country differences in fields of study are smaller due to the greater similarity of the programmes offered at this level. Nevertheless, important differences still exist. In Colombia, 35% of new entrants to bachelor’s programmes enrol in business administration and law, compared to only 13% in Korea (Table B4.). At master’s level, the choice of fields that are offered as long first-degree programmes strongly affects the distribution of new entrants across fields. In many countries, medicine and related subjects are only offered as long first-degree programmes and so the share of new entrants in the field of health and welfare is correspondingly high.

Women make up a small but clear majority of those starting tertiary education across OECD countries, at 55% of all new entrants. Notably, there is no longer a single OECD country where women are not in the majority among first-time entrants to tertiary education. Iceland has the largest gender gap, as women make up 62% of first-time entrants compared to 38% for men, whereas in Germany, Japan and Switzerland, women are just barely in the majority. In general, the gender gap among first-time entrants is slightly smaller than the gender gap in tertiary attainment among 25-34 year-olds and among graduates from tertiary education (see Table B5.1, Indicator B5 and Education at a Glance Database). This is due to gender differences in the completion rates of tertiary students (OECD, 2022[4]). As women are more likely to complete their tertiary studies than men, the gender gap among graduates is wider than among entrants.

Although women are in the majority overall, there are significant gender differences in the choice of field of study among first-time entrants to tertiary education. Figure B4.2 shows the gender breakdown for short-cycle tertiary programmes. More than three-quarters of first-time entrants into short-cycle tertiary STEM programmes are men, whereas in health and welfare, and education programmes, more than three-quarters of first-time entrants are women. The fields of business administration and law, services, and arts and humanities are more evenly balanced. Similar gender patterns are also found at higher levels of tertiary education, although the overall gender gap tends to narrow slightly with increasing level of education and is smallest among entrants into doctoral programmes (OECD, 2022[4]).

A large majority – 83% – of first-time entrants into tertiary education in all OECD countries are aged under 25. The average age of first-time entrants into tertiary education is 22 years. However, there are wide differences across countries in how common it is to enter tertiary education for the first-time later in life. Only 4% of first-time entrants in Belgium, and just 1% in Japan, are 25 or older. In contrast, more than 30% of first-time entrants in Colombia, Sweden, Switzerland and Türkiye are 25 years or older (Table B4.1). This illustrates the fundamental differences in pathways into tertiary education that exist across countries, and the varying roles that tertiary education can play in lifelong learning.

Figure B4.3 shows that the age distribution of first-time entrants into short-cycle tertiary programmes varies widely among countries. The difference can be explained by the fact that in some countries, these programmes are often adult education programmes. In Austria, at bachelor’s level, several short-cycle programmes are classified as adult education, such as the Berufsbildende höhere Schule für Berufstätige and the Werkmeister- und Bauhandwerkerschule.

The age distribution of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes is also considerably wider than for bachelor’s or master’s long first-degree programmes. In many countries, there is more than a 10-year gap between the ages of entrants at the 75th percentile of the age distribution and those at the 25th percentile (Figure B4.3). Again, this can be explained by the diverse roles that short-cycle tertiary programmes have in many countries, covering both initial education and adult education. Two exceptions in this respect are France and Mexico where, even at the 75th percentile, entrants into short-cycle tertiary programmes are aged slightly below 20. In contrast to most other countries, short-cycle tertiary programmes in France are primarily targeted at students who have just completed upper secondary education.

Many factors at the individual, institutional, national and global levels drive patterns of international student mobility. These include personal ambitions and aspirations for better employment prospects, a lack of high-quality tertiary institutions at home, the capacity of tertiary institutions abroad to attract talent, and government policies to encourage cross-border mobility for education (Bhandari, Robles and Farrugia, 2018[5]).

Across the OECD, 10% of all first-time entrants into tertiary education are international students (Table B4.1) The share of internationally mobile students increases with the level of education in most OECD countries. Short-cycle tertiary programmes have the lowest share, of just 6% of new entrants on average, followed by bachelor’s programmes, with 8% of new entrants. At master’s level, 19% of new entrants are internationally mobile and the share reaches 31% at doctoral level (see Education at a Glance database).

Adult education is specifically targeted at individuals who are regarded as adults by their society to improve their technical or professional qualifications, further develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge with the purpose of completing a level of formal education, or to acquire, refresh or update their knowledge, skills and competencies in a particular field. This also includes what may be referred to as “continuing education”, “recurrent education” or “second-chance education”.

Initial education is the education of individuals before their first entrance to the labour market, i.e. when they will normally be in full-time education. It thus targets individuals who are regarded as children, youth and young adults by their society. It typically takes place in educational institutions in a system designed as a continuous educational pathway.

Internationally mobile students or international students are those students who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study.

Master's long first degree (LFD) is a five- to seven-year master’s programme (ISCED 7-LFD) that prepares for a first degree or qualification that is equivalent to master’s level programme in terms of its complexity of content. This includes highly specialised fields such as medicine, dentistry or, in some cases, law and engineering.

New entrants to a tertiary level of education are students enrolling for the first-time in a tertiary level of education but who may have previously entered and completed a degree in another tertiary level of education.

The average age of students is calculated from 1 January for countries where the academic year starts in the second semester of the calendar year and 1 July for countries where the academic year starts in the first semester of the calendar year. As a consequence, the average age of new entrants may be overestimated by up to six months, while that of first-time graduates may be underestimated by the same.

International students are a significant share of the total student population in some countries, and their numbers can artificially inflate the proportion of today’s young adults who are expected to enter tertiary programmes. When international students are included in the calculation, the percentage of expected first-time entrants into tertiary programmes can change significantly.

The field of education is determined by the main subject matter of a student’s programme of study. For practical purposes, the main subject of a programme or qualification is determined by the detailed field in which the majority (i.e. more than 50%) or a clearly predominant part of the learning credits or students’ intended learning time is spent. Learning credits, where available, should be used. Otherwise, an approximate assessment of the intended learning time should be made. Learning time includes time spent in lectures and seminars, as well as in laboratories or on special projects. Private study time is excluded (as it is difficult to measure and varies between students). Programmes and qualifications are classified in the detailed field containing their main subject (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2014[6]).

For more information see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[7]) and Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes. (OECD, 2023[2])

Data refer to the 2020/21 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2022. Data for some countries may have a different reference year. For more information see Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes. (OECD, 2023[2])


[5] Bhandari, R., C. Robles and C. Farrugia (2018), “International higher education: Shifting mobilities, policy challenges, and new initiatives”, Background paper prepared for the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (accessed on 7 June 2021).

[3] Hofer, A., A. Zhivkovikj and R. Smyth (2020), “The role of labour market information in guiding educational and occupational choices”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 229, OECD Publishing, Paris,

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

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

[1] OECD (2021), OECD Skills Outlook 2021: Learning for Life, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[7] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2014), ISCED Fields of Education and Training 2013 (ISCED-F 2013), UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Montreal,

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