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Measuring Up Internationally:
Developing Skills and Knowledge for the Global Knowledge Economy

  Executive Summary

Higher education globalizes: its potential contributions are now seen as a crucial component of cross-border economic competitiveness. As anticipated by a French economist, "Each student will be competing with other students throughout the world with similar skills, but also the efficiency of the universities will be a major factor in a country's competitiveness. In other words, German universities [will be] competing less among themselves than with Japanese or American universities."1 Accumulating evidence suggests that a highly qualified workforce contributes substantially to a nation's economic competitiveness, particularly when a large share of the workforce has acquired skills and knowledge through higher education.2 These findings apply to states as well as nations; those states that improve opportunities for education and training beyond high school advance their residents' employment prospects and the competitiveness of their overall workforce.

Considering the importance of having a well-educated workforce, how is the United States performing in higher education? How do countries with advanced, market-based economies compare on key indicators?

  • In the Czech Republic, Korea, Norway, and the Slovak Republic, more than 90% of young adults (ages 20 to 24) have a high school credential (see table 1).3 In the United States, 86% of this age group has a high school credential, and this share has not changed substantially over the past 25 years. The size and diversity of the school-age population has increased in the United States, as it has in other countries—including those with rising levels of attainment.

  • Compared with other countries with advanced economies, the United States places about in the middle on direct assessments of skills and knowledge of eighth graders (see table 3). Korea and Singapore are leaders on several assessments; in none of the assessments does the United States place at top levels. The United States has improved over the past few years, but not enough to place it among the leaders.

  • In the United States, about one-quarter of 15-year-olds fall into the lowest proficiency level on assessments of skills and knowledge (see table 4). Because these young people lack even minimal capacities, they are most likely to be excluded from studies beyond high school. In Finland and Korea, less than a tenth of 15-year-olds perform at this low level. In France and Ireland, countries with average performance above but closer to that of the United States, about one-sixth of 15-year-olds demonstrate this low level of proficiency.

  • About three of five young adults in the United States can expect to enter higher education at some point in their lifetimes—a rate that has made the United States a world leader on this metric. However, because other countries are experiencing more substantial enrollment growth than the United States, the United States is now one of nine countries with 60% or more of their young adults likely to enter higher education. (See table 5.)

  • From the mid-1990s, enrollment growth in the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom largely reflects increases in participation rates, as higher proportions of their populations pursue higher education. In the United States, however, enrollment growth during this period reflects population growth as much as increased participation rates. (See table 6.)

  • The United States is among the leaders in terms of adult participation in higher education (ages 30 to 64), whether for degrees or for nondegree "upgrading" and "updating" (see table 7). In Sweden and the United Kingdom, adult participation in a wide range of learning activities (including in higher education) continues to be strongly promoted under new policies.

  • The United States, however, stands at the average of 20 countries in the production of bachelor's degrees (or their equivalents) as first academic degrees, when differences in population size are taken into account (see table 8). In the United States, a substantial share of the population earns associate's degrees and certificates, usually upon the completion of more vocationally and occupationally oriented study programs. These types of qualifications increasingly find counterparts in other countries.

  • The share of the adult population (ages 25 to 64) with degrees has increased everywhere, so that today the United States is joined by Canada, Finland, Japan, and Sweden as leading countries. For younger adults (ages 25 to 34), where more recent trends can be discerned, Belgium, Norway, France, Ireland, Korea, and Spain as well as Canada, Finland, Japan, and Sweden now have degree attainment rates close to or above those of the United States. (See table 9.)

  • Young adults (ages 20 to 25) in Sweden and Norway who have completed some college or university education perform better than their peers in the United States on multiple assessments of skills (see table 10). The United States also trails Belgium and the Czech Republic on some measures of skills and learning. In all of these countries except the Czech Republic, participation in higher education has been expanding to relatively high levels.

In sum, although the United States continues to rank among the leaders in comparisons of performance in higher education, its leadership position has eroded. No longer the clear-cut top performer in participation and completion rates, the United States has been joined by other countries that have expanded access to and completion of higher education programs. Further, comparisons of direct measures of learning show the United States as trailing the leading countries. As a result, as U.S. states strengthen higher education opportunity and outcomes, they may find that other countries have also stronger or improving performance levels.

Finally, all countries face challenges in reducing gaps in higher education participation, completion, and learning by income, social class, region, or ethnic group. In Korea and Finland, among other countries, rising rates of attainment at the high school level suggest that historic barriers to access may be falling. In these countries, proficiency levels of school children imply strong foundations for learning. The need to reduce inequality in access, completion, and learning is becoming increasingly important as the workforce demands in many countries increase—as is the case in individual U.S. states and in the United States as a whole. How well each nation responds to this challenge promises to be a key policy question in strengthening the knowledge and skills of its population and the competitiveness of its workforce.


1 Jacques Lesourne, "The Future of Industrial Societies and Higher Education," Higher Education Management 1(3), 1988, pp. 284-97.
2 In this paper, "higher education" is used to describe education beyond high school. For most of the international comparisons, the data refer to programs of at least two years' duration.
3 In this paper, a high school "credential" refers to a high school diploma or its equivalent in the United States (for example, the General Education Development diploma [GED]), and to upper-secondary qualifications in many other countries.
 

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