Educational attainment

Educational attainment is a commonly used proxy for the stock of human capital – say, the skills available in the population and the labour force. As globalisation and technology continue to re-shape the needs of labour markets worldwide, the demand for individuals with a broader knowledge base and more specialised skills, e.g. advanced analytical capacities, and complex communication skills, continues to rise. As a result, more individuals are pursuing higher levels of education now than in previous generations, leading to significant shifts in attainment levels over time within countries.


Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education completed by a person, shown as a percentage of all persons in that age group. Below upper secondary education includes early childhood education, primary education or lower secondary education. Programmes at the lower secondary education level are designed to lay the foundation across a wide range of subjects. Programmes at the upper secondary level are more specialised and offer students more choices and diverse pathways for completing their secondary education. Tertiary education includes short-cycle tertiary education, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral or equivalent levels.


The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 2011) is used to define the levels of education in a comparable way across countries. The ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications describes ISCED 2011 education programmes and attainment levels and examples for each country.

Note that data for Brazil, Chile, France and Russia for 2014 refer to 2013 and for South Africa to year 2012. Data for Indonesia for 2014 refer to 2011 and data for 2010 refer to 2006. In the United Kingdom, 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 (18% of the adults are under this group).


An indication of long-term trends in educational attainment can be obtained by comparing the current attainment levels of younger and older adults. Tertiary attainment levels have increased considerably over the past 30 years. On average across OECD countries, 41% of 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary attainment, compared with 25% of 55-64 year-olds. Canada, Korea and Russia lead in the proportion of young adults (25-34 year-olds) with a tertiary attainment, with 55% or more having reached this level of education. In Ireland, Korea and Poland, there is a difference of 25 percentage points or more between the proportion of young adults and older adults who have attained this level of education.

In 2014, over 30% of the population aged between 25 and 64 has attained tertiary level education in more than half of the OECD countries. On average across OECD countries, 24% of adults now have only primary or lower secondary levels of education, 43% have upper secondary education and 34% have a tertiary qualification.


Further information

Analytical publications

Statistical publications

Online databases


Table. Educational attainment

Population that has attained tertiary education
Percentage, 2014