Tia T. Gordon
Institute for Higher Education Policy
202 372 7204

New Comparison of International Data Reveal U.S. Higher Education Rates and Global Competitiveness Higher Than Initially Reported

Data Show United States Remains Competitive Among Other Developed Nations

Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 2009—News stories have swirled for months that the United States is losing its global competitiveness because our college graduation rates are slipping. The fact is U.S. graduation rates remain comparable to those of other developed countries. The only major difference—the data most commonly highlighted, but rarely understood—is the categorization of graduation rate data. The United States measures its graduation rates by “institution” while other developed nations measure their attainment rates by “system.”

A new report, The Spaces Between Numbers: Getting International Data on Higher Education Straight, finds that while the proportion of U.S. beginning four-year college students who graduate from the same institution in six years is 56 percent, the proportion who graduate from any institution is 63 percent. That 63 percent is comparable to France’s seven-year rate of 64 percent, the Netherlands’ seven-year rate of 65 percent, or Finland’s 7.5 year combination of 58 percent in universities and 70 percent in their polytechnics. These little known, but significant, facts about our nation’s graduation rates, are not new but are sometimes overlooked. The report shows that upon analysis of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—and from other individual countries’ statistical agencies—that a majority of OECD countries are producing the equivalent of bachelor’s degrees at roughly the same rate in roughly the same time span.


The report finds that some OECD data understate our nation’s bachelor’s degree graduation rates and overstate those of some other countries.

  • Overall Graduation Rates: OECD's Education at a Glance presents these data for 27 countries in a table where it is difficult to discern how long students are followed in each country. The United States is the only one of the 27 for which graduation is counted only if students earned a degree from the same institution in which they began. All other countries in the table on this issue present data that count students who graduate from any institution. The U.S. system graduation rate is reported, but is in an appendix to Education at a Glance that can only be accessed online and thus may be overlooked.
  • Community Colleges and Associate's Degree: The United States does not compare very favorably with other nations regarding associate’s degrees because our community colleges historically have taken on other missions that comparable institutions and programs in other countries have not assumed. Rather than focusing on getting students to earn associate’s degrees first—as in the case with comparable institutions and programs in other countries—U.S. community colleges are under greater pressure to perform many functions, including getting students to transfer to four-year colleges.

“The most important takeaway from this report is to understand the limitations of comparative international data on higher education. While comparative data from OECD and other sources can be very useful in policy discussions, we must find careful and effective approaches to analyze these data so that the U.S. postsecondary rates are not taken out of context," said IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D.

The Spaces Between Numbers: Getting International Data on Higher Education Straight is a publication from IHEP’s Global Performance Initiative, which aims to create a new understanding of the rapidly changing global context for learning and credentialing in higher education, and the potential impact of these changes in the United States. Launched in 2007, the initiative has since issued several publications focusing on global higher education through its online information resource center.

The Global Performance Initiative is supported by Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based private foundation striving to help people achieve their potential by expanding access to and success in education beyond high school.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Established in 1993, the Washington, D.C.-based organization uses unique research and innovative programs to inform key decision makers who shape public policy and support economic and social development. IHEP’s web site, www.Ihep.org, features an expansive collection of higher education information available free of charge and provides access to some of the most respected professionals in the fields of public policy and research.