Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. In addition, education may improve people’s lives in such areas as health, civic participation, political interest and happiness. Studies show that educated individuals live longer, participate more actively in politics and in the community where they live, commit fewer crimes and rely less on social assistance.

Educational Attainment

Most concretely, having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. Highly-educated individuals are less affected by unemployment trends, typically because educational attainment makes an individual more attractive in the workforce. Across OECD countries, 83% of people with university-level degrees have a job, compared with just below 56% of those with only a secondary school diploma. The employment rate is higher for men than women whatever their education level – 88% of men and 79% of women with university education have a job, while the rate is 69% for men and 49% for women with only lower secondary education. Lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education attained.

Furthermore, following a decline in manual labour over previous decades, employers now favour a more educated labour force. This shift in demand has made an upper secondary degree, or high-school degree, the minimum credential for finding a job in almost all OECD countries. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market.

On average, 74% of adults aged 25-64 within the OECD have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree. This is slightly truer of men than of women, as 75% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 73% of women. In 30 OECD countries, and Russia, 60% or more of the population aged 25 to 64 has completed at least upper secondary education. In some countries, the opposite is true: in Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey, 60% or more of the population aged 25 to 64 have not completed upper secondary education.  However, among younger people in the OECD – a better indicator of a country’s future – 82% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree and women tend to outperform men.

Women are now also more likely to complete a tertiary or upper-secondary degree than men in almost all OECD countries, a reversal of the historical pattern. On average across OECD countries, 41% of women aged 25-34 have at least an upper secondary degree compared with 33% of men from the same age group.

Years in education

In a fast-changing knowledge economy, education is about learning skills for life. But how many years of school, college, or training will future generations need to acquire those skills? The answer is that on average in the OECD, people can expect to go through 16.5 years of education, judging by the number of people between the ages of 5 and 39 currently in school or college. Results range from 14.9 years of education in Luxembourg and Mexico, to nearly 20 years in Finland.

Students’ skills

But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students near the end of their compulsory education (usually around age 15) have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies, particularly in reading, mathematics and science. 

In 2009, PISA tested students from 65 countries, including OECD countries, Brazil and the Russian Federation. The students were tested on their reading ability, their skills in maths and level in sciences. Research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school or in post-formal education. The average student in the OECD area scored 497. Girls outperformed boys in all countries, except for Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States. On average in the OECD, girls scored 501 compared with 492 for boys. This gap is even greater in Finland, Slovenia and the Russian Federation. .

Finland and Korea are the highest-performing OECD countries, with average PISA scores of 543 and 541 points, respectively. Other top-performing OECD countries in students’ skills include Japan (529), Canada (527) and New Zealand (524). The lowest performing OECD country, Mexico, has an average score of 420. This means that the gap between the highest and lowest performing OECD countries is 123 points. The gap with Brazil is even larger, with 142 points separating the average performance of Brazil and Finland.

The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In Iceland, Estonia and Finland for example, students tend to perform well regardless of their social background. In Hungary, Germany, Luxembourg and France however, the gap between the bottom 20% and top 20% reaches more than 125 points, suggesting students’ socio-economic background tends to have an impact on their results. On average across OECD countries, there is a 99-point difference in PISA scores between the students with the highest and lowest socio-economic background.  

Education in Detail by Country