The latest international education comparisons show that the United States remains a leader when it comes to having an educated workforce, but other countries are catching up - fast.
Today, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development releases its "Education at a Glance" report for 2011. The group analyzes and compares education data from several dozen countries around the world.
Gaining on the U.S.
Twenty-six percent of the 255 million people in the world with higher education live in the United States. China is second and Japan third. But the picture looks less rosy for Americans when you examine educational attainment in different age groups. The American share is much larger (36 percent) in the 55-64 age group than in the 25-34 age group (21 percent). The United States is the only nation where higher education levels among those just entering the workforce do not exceed those who are about to leave. It ranks 15th among 34 countries studied when it comes to higher education attainment in the 25-34 age group.
Not ready for higher ed
The United States may have a hard time meeting the growing demand for highly skilled workers because of students' poor achievement.
Forty-two percent of 15-year-olds in the U.S. are below a certain level of proficiency in reading on an international test, about average across the nations studied. However, youths from other countries perform markedly higher; the failure rate is 25 percent in Finland and 21 percent in Korea, for example.
Education has rewards
Higher education, while expanding worldwide, still offers benefits for people. In the United States, a person with a degree beyond high school can expect to earn 79 percent more than a high school graduate. And during the recession, educated workers fared better, with 2009 unemployment rates reaching 15.8 percent for those without a high school diploma, 9.8 percent for high school graduates and 4.9 percent for college graduates.
Even with all the benefits, investing in higher education can be risky for individuals because the cost in the United States is so high. A graduate can expect to spend $70,000 for higher education, while foregoing $39,000 in earnings during college.
But outcomes can vary widely; 13 percent of those with higher education earn half or below half of the median salary in the U.S.
More tax dollars
Investment of public dollars in education has a public payoff. During his working life, an American man with a higher education degree pays $190,000 more in taxes and other social contributions than a man without higher education.
The N.C. perspective
The data point out real concerns, said Scott Ralls, president of the N.C. Community College System.
Education leaders in North Carolina are constantly talking about how to improve students' performance in math and science to prepare them for the future workforce. Even machinists and auto mechanics have to know how to program high-tech equipment on the job.
"The skills at the technical level have moved from the hand to the head," Ralls said.
The good news is that in the United States, workers have a low-cost way to upgrade their skills throughout adulthood. "That's a uniquely American higher education innovation, which is the community college," Ralls said.
North Carolina finds itself competing not just with Texas and Massachusetts for jobs, but also with Ireland, Brazil and China.
At a recent biotech expo in Washington, Ralls said he was surprised to see booths from Russia, China and a host of other countries.
"When you've got Russia competing against you for economic development," Ralls said, "it's a whole new world."
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