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The Most Educated Countries in the World

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 world.

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.

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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.

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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.

1. Canada

Thinkstock> 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.

2. Israel

Thinkstock> 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.”

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