OECD Data Conflict With Biden’s Educational Attainment Claim

By D'Angelo Gore

Posted on October 15, 2021

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As of 2020, almost 52% of the United States population 25 to 34 years old had earned a postsecondary degree — putting the U.S. in 11th place among the 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The roughly 50% of U.S. residents 25 to 64 years old with a higher education degree ranked even higher among OECD member nations — fifth place.

Those statistics conflict with President Joe Biden’s claim that the U.S., according to an unidentified study, trails 32 other “advanced economies” in the percentage of “young” residents obtaining a degree after high school.

Biden made the claim in an Oct. 8 speech, in which he talked about the September jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During his remarks, the president made a case for Congress to pass legislation implementing his Build Back Better agenda, which he said would make investments in community college and help U.S. students who have fallen behind those in other countries.

“According to one study, America ranks — catch this — America ranks 33rd out of the 44 advanced economies when it comes to the percentage of our young people who have attained a post-high-school degree,” Biden said. “The United States — 33rd out of 44?”

We asked the White House which study Biden was citing, but we did not receive a response. That left us not knowing which “advanced economies” were included, the age of those “young people,” or even the type of “post-high-school degree” that was counted.

But what we do know is that Biden’s claim is contradicted by OECD data on tertiary education, which the OECD defines as the “highest level of education” that “includes both theoretical programmes leading to advanced research or high skill professions such as medicine and more vocational programmes leading to the labour market.”

The Paris-based organization consists of 38 member nations that collaborate on economic and social policy. More than 30 of the participating countries are classified as either “high income economies” by the World Bank or “advanced economies” by the International Monetary Fund.

The OECD’s breakdown for tertiary education includes a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, or an equivalent, as well as “short-cycle” programs resulting in an associate’s degree or other certification.

In fact, the OECD’s data has long been used by the National Center for Education Statistics within the federal Department of Education to make international comparisons on educational attainment. And when we inquired about the claim, the Education Department referred us to the OECD’s most recent data, “which best addresses this topic,” a department spokesperson said in an email.

According to the data, which are as of 2020 for most of the countries, the U.S. ranks much higher in education after high school than Biden indicated.

The data show that 51.9% of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 34 had attained a postsecondary degree at the tertiary level. That was higher than the OECD average of 45.6%, and only 10 OECD countries had higher percentages: South Korea (69.8%), Canada (64.4%), Japan (61.5%), Ireland (58.4%), Luxembourg (58.2%), Lithuania (56.2%), United Kingdom (55.8%), Australia (54.6%), Switzerland (53.0%) and Netherlands (52.3%).

The U.S. percentage among that age group actually has gone up steadily for years, increasing by more than 10 percentage points since 2009.

In addition, when the range is expanded to those age 25 to 64, only four OECD nations had a higher percentage with tertiary education than the U.S.

Canada (60%), Japan (52.7%), Luxembourg (51.3%) and South Korea (50.7%) were all ahead of the U.S. and Israel, which were tied at 50.1%. The U.S. percentage again was higher than the OECD average of 39%.

It may be that Biden was relying on different data, and we will update this story if the White House gets back to us. But the data used by his own Department of Education indicate that the U.S. ranks better globally than whatever study he relied upon.

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