The Most Educated Countries in the World

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Between 2010 and 2011, the percentage of adults with a college degree in the United States remained unchanged at 42%. Since 2000, the proportion of college graduates has grown at one of the slowest rates among developed countries. At the same time, the country continues to score worse than most developed nations in high-level math and reading skills.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s latest report, as of 2011, an estimated 53.5% of Russian adults held a tertiary degree, which is the equivalent of a college degree in the United States. It was the highest proportion among the developed countries considered by the OECD. While the U.S. has failed to improve recently, it still did far better than most, ranking fifth overall. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 countries with the highest proportion of adults holding a college degree.

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The most educated populations tend to be in countries where spending on all levels of education is among the highest. The United States, for example, spent 7.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education in 2010, the sixth highest among the countries reviewed by the OECD. Eight of the 10 most educated countries spent more than the OECD average on education, both as a percentage of GDP and in dollars per capita.

Russia and Japan are exceptions to this trend. In Russia, per student spending on education was just 4.9% of GDP, or barely more than $5,000 per student. Both figures were among the lowest among all countries reviewed. In the United States, spending per pupil was more than three times as much.

In most of the countries with high levels of tertiary education, private spending accounts for a much larger proportion of total spending. Of the 10 countries with the highest tertiary education levels, nine had very high levels of total education spending coming from private sources. In the U.S., for example, nearly three-quarters of all education spending came from non-public sources, compared to the OECD average of 32%.

Many of the best educated countries tend to have higher levels of advanced skills. Japan, Canada and Finland — countries with very well-educated populations — were among the highest performing countries in literacy and math proficiency exams. The U.S. is a notable exception to this rule.

Those higher skills appear to have paid off for residents in these countries. Across OECD countries in 2011, unemployment rates were lower for young adults who had completed upper secondary or post-secondary education. The top educated countries were no exception. In the United States, the unemployment rate for residents was 6.5%, compared to an 8.1% rate overall.

According to OECD analyst Gara Rojas González, tertiary education is crucial not just for individuals’ success, but also for countries to weather poor economic conditions. “After the strong impact of the financial crisis, not surprisingly, unemployment rates increased at each level of education, but the increase has been smaller among higher-educated people. At higher levels of attainment, people are less exposed to unemployment and have better chances to keep participating actively in the economic system, for the benefit of both individuals and society.”

To identify the most educated countries in the world, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 countries with the highest proportions of residents aged 25 to 64 with a tertiary education in 2011. These data were included as part of the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 report. The countries considered by the report included the 34 OECD member countries, and eight non-OECD nations. Included in the report were data on the proportion of adults completing various levels of education, unemployment levels, as well as public and private expenditure. We also reviewed data from the OECD’s recently-released Survey of Adult Skills, which included advanced adult proficiency in both math and reading. The most current figures for education expenditure by country are from 2010. All ranks are out of the countries with available data reviewed by the OECD. All figures are the most recent available at the time the report was assembled.

These are the 10 most educated countries in the world.