College graduation rates continued to improve around the world during
the recession, according to a recent international economic study. In
more developed countries, the percentage of adults with the equivalent
of a college degree rose to more than 30% in 2010. In the United States,
it was more than 40%, which is among the highest percentages in the
However, improvements in higher education are harder to achieve in
these countries. More developed economies have had the most educated
populations for some time. While these countries have steadily increased
education rates, the increases have been modest compared to developing
economies. At just above 1%, the U.S. has had one of the smallest annual
growth rates for higher education since 1997. In Poland, an emerging
market, the annualized rate was 7.2% from 1997 to 2010.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Education at a Glance 2012
report calculated the proportion of residents with a college or college
equivalent degree in the group’s 34 member nations and other major
economies. Based on the report, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10
countries with the highest proportion of adults with a college degree.
The majority of countries that spend the most on education have the
most educated populations. As in previous years, the best educated
countries tend to spend the most on tertiary education as a percentage
of gross domestic product. The United States and Canada, among the most
educated countries, spend the first and third most respectively.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., OECD’s Chief Media Officer
Matthias Rumpf explained that educational funding appears to have a
strong relationship to how many residents pursue higher education.
Private spending on educational institutions relative to public
expenditure is much larger in the countries with the highest rates of
college-equivalent education. Among the countries with the highest
proportion of residents with a tertiary education, a disproportionate
amount of spending comes from private sources, including tuition and
donations. The OECD average proportion of private spending is 16%. In
the U.S., 28% of funding comes from private sources. In South Korea,
another country in the top 10, it is more than 40%.
Having more education helped people all over the world stay employed
during the recession, according to the OECD. Between 2008 and 2010,
unemployment rates among developed nations jumped from 8.8% to 12.5% for
people with less than a high school education, and from 4.9% to 7.6%
for people with only a high school education. For those with the
equivalent of a college degree or more, the jobless rate went from 3.3%
to just 4.7%.
Among the 10 countries with the highest proportion of educated
adults, unemployment rates for those with a college equivalent ranged
from 2.8% in Australia to 5.4% in the Canada. In each country, the rate
remained lower than that country’s national average.
The OECD provided information on
the percentage of residents aged 25 to 64 with a tertiary education for
each of its 34 member countries, as well as for eight other nations.
2010 statistics on educational attainment, graduation rates, GDP per
capita and unemployment rates also were provided by the OECD. The latest
figures covering country-level education expenditure are from 2009.
These are the 10 most educated countries in the world.
10. Ireland > Pct. population with tertiary education: 37% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 7.3% (the highest) > GDP per capita: $40,478 (7th highest)
From 2000 through 2010, the percentage of people with a college
education or more in Ireland nearly doubled, rising at an annual average
of 7.3% — faster than any country in the study. High school graduation
rates also rose during that time, from 74% to 94%. Education has become
especially critical for male job seekers in Ireland’s workforce, as 6.3%
of men with a tertiary education were unemployed in 2010 versus 15.2%
for all men nationwide.
9. Australia > Pct. population with tertiary education: 38% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 3.2% (12th lowest) > GDP per capita: $40,790 (6th highest)
Australia is a preferred destination for many international students,
which is why it should come as no surprise that they accounted for
21.2% of the country’s tertiary students in 2010, higher than every
country other than Luxembourg. Finding a job in the country is not
especially hard for those with a college degree. The country had an
unemployment rate of just 2.8% in 2010 for workers with a tertiary
degree, compared to a rate of just 5.2% for all workers. 8. Finland > Pct. population with tertiary education: 38% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 1.8% (4th lowest) > GDP per capita: $36,307 (14th highest)
Finland spent 6.4% of its gross domestic product on education in
2009, with 97.6% of these funds coming from public sources, more than
any country in the report. Between 2000 and 2010, high school graduation
rates rose by just two percentage points, while the number of people
with a college education or more rose by just six percentage points. As a
result, Finland fell from fourth to eighth place among the world’s most
educated countries. Finnish workers with a tertiary education were far
more likely to be employed than those without such an education — the
unemployment rate was 4.4% for residents with a degree and 8.4% for
7. United Kingdom > Pct. population with tertiary education: 38% > Average annual growth rate: 4.0% (10th highest) > GDP per capita: $35,756 (15th highest)
Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of U.K. residents with a
tertiary education rose 12 percentage points. The country’s universities
are also popular among students from other nations. International
students make up 16% of enrollment. The country recently has had a shift
in how education is financed. While in 2000 the percentage of funds
from private sources was 14.8%, it rose to 31.1% by 2009. Students also
must cover more of the cost of higher education than in the past, as the
cap on tuition fees was raised from 3,290 pounds to 9,000 pounds for
the 2012-2013 year.
6. South Korea > Pct. population with tertiary education: 40% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 5.2% (6th highest) > GDP per capita: $28,797 (16th lowest)
Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of South Koreans with a college
education or more rose from 24% to 40%. In addition to being
well-educated, many residents also invested considerable amounts towards
their schooling. In 2009, only Iceland spent more than South Korea’s 8%
of GDP. That year, no country in the study contributed more private
funds for education at all levels than South Korea, at 3.1% of GDP, or
for tertiary education, at 1.9%. Despite the investment, education does
not appear to have a measurable impact on job seekers. The unemployment
rate in 2010 for those with a tertiary degree was 3.3% — low relative to
the OECD average of 4.7%, but not much lower than the 3.7% rate for all
workers in the country.
5. New Zealand > Pct. population with tertiary education: 41% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 3.5% (13th highest) > GDP per capita: $29,711 (17th lowest)
The tiny country’s population has grown 13.2% between 2000 and 2010,
as has the country’s education system. The number of people with a
college or college equivalent education rose from 29% to 41% over the
period. The country also has become a destination of choice for
international students, who made up 14.2% of tertiary students in 2010.
New Zealand is also a leader in educating scientists, with 16% of
students choosing a science for their field of study at the tertiary
level — the highest proportion of any country.
4. United States > Pct. population with tertiary education: 42% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 1.3% (2nd lowest) > GDP per capita: $46,548 (4th highest)
Although the U.S. is one of just a few nations where more than 40% of
people had a tertiary education in 2010, its education system is not
without problems. Among the concerns, the graduation rate for upper
secondary students in 2010 was 77%, well below the average rate of 84%
for the OECD. Even though graduation rates were relatively low, the U.S.
is one of the biggest spenders on education, with related expenditures
equaling 7.3% of GDP in 2009. The U.S. was also the world’s largest
spender on tertiary education in 2009, at 2.6% of GDP. The majority of
funds for higher education, totaling 1.6% of GDP, came from private
3. Japan > Pct. population with tertiary education: 45% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 2.9% (10th lowest) > GDP per capita: $33,785 (18th highest)
In 2009, Japan spent 1.6% of GDP on college or college equivalent
education, on par with the OECD’s average, and just 5.2% of GDP on
education overall, well below the OECD’s 6.3% average. Despite its
relatively light spending, the country still had a high school
graduation rate of 96%, the second best among all nations in 2010, while
the percentage of its population with a tertiary education was 14
percentage points higher than the OECD’s average. However, according to
The Wall Street Journal, recent university graduates in Japan have
struggled to find work, with 15% those graduating in the spring of 2012
neither employed nor enrolled in further education as of August.
2. Israel > Pct. population with tertiary education: 46% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): N/A > GDP per capita: $26,531 (13th lowest)
Israel only joined the OECD in 2010. That year, its GDP per capita
was more than $7,000 below the OECD’s average. Despite this, the
country’s high school graduation rate was 92% in 2010, well above the
OECD’s 84% average. Some 46% of residents had a tertiary education,
versus 31% for the OECD. Israel spent 7.2% of GDP on educational
institutions in 2009, the sixth most among all nations. And for the
first time, preschool education will become free in 2012 even for
children as young as three years old, Haaretz newspaper reported. This
should benefit Israel as, according to the OECD, “early childhood
education is associated with better performance later on in school.”
1. Canada > Pct. population with tertiary education: 51% > Average annual growth rate (2000-2010): 2.4% (5th lowest) > GDP per capita: $39,050 (11th highest)
Canada is the only nation where more than half of all adults had a
tertiary education in 2010. This was up from 40% of the adult population
in 2000, when the country also ranked as the world’s most educated.
Canada has managed to become a world leader in education without being a
leader in education spending, which totaled just 6.1% of GDP in 2009,
or less than the 6.3% average for the OECD. A large amount of its
spending went towards tertiary education, on which the country spent
2.5% of GDP, trailing only the United States and South Korea. One of the
few areas Canada did not perform well in was attracting international
students, who made up just 6.6% of all tertiary students — lower than
the OECD’s 8% average.
Michael B. Sauter and Alexander E. M. Hess