Special Report

The Most Educated Countries in the World

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.

Click here to see the most educated countries

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.

10. Australia
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 38.3%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 3.1%
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 6.1% (15th lowest)

Australia has been a popular destination for international students for some time. In 2009, more than 25% of the total population in Australia was foreign-born, the highest percentage of any country reviewed by the OECD. According to The Wall St. Journal, however, foreign students’ interest in Australian tertiary education is declining, and Australian universities have restructured their programs to better compete for international students. Recipients of advanced degrees in Australia have a relatively high chance of finding a job. In 2011, Australian adults who completed advanced research programs had among the lowest unemployment rates in the world.

9. Finland
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 39.3%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 1.7%
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 6.5% (11th highest)

Based on the performance of Finland’s secondary school students on international tests, the country has a very effective education system. Finland’s investment in education continues past secondary school. The Finnish government spent nearly 2% of its GDP on bachelor’s degree equivalent programs, higher than every country reviewed excepting Korea. Finland’s higher education system is almost entirely government-run. Public funding accounted for nearly 96% of all tertiary spending in the country in 2010, more than every other country except for Norway. The OECD average was just 68%.

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8. New Zealand
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 39.3%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 2.9%
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 7.3% (7th highest)

After completing secondary school, many New Zealanders pursue technical, skill-based educations. Of the country’s adults, well over 15% had attained this kind of college education, among the highest proportions among nations reviewed by the OECD. Spending on education in New Zealand amounted to 7.28% of national GDP in 2010, about the same proportion as the United States. An estimated 21.2% of the New Zealand government’s total spending went to education, nearly double the OECD average.

7. United Kingdom
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 39.4%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 4.0%
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 6.5% (12th highest)

About three-quarters of tertiary education in the United Kingdom was funded by private sources in 2010, second only to Chile among countries reviewed by the OECD. This share of private expenditure on tertiary education has more than doubled since the year 2000. Overall spending on education has gone up in the U.K. According to the OECD, that investment has paid off, as evidenced by the country’s increased tertiary graduation rates. Additionally, since 2000, the U.K. has become a preferred destination for international students, second only to the United States.

6. Korea
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 40.4%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 4.9% (6th highest)
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 7.6% (3rd highest)

Koreans have a relatively good chance of finding a job after receiving an education. Just 2.6% of adults in the country with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree were unemployed. This was less than any country reviewed by the OECD with the exception of Norway. Korean teachers have among the best salaries among countries reviewed by the OECD. As a percentage of GDP, spending on tertiary education and advanced research programs in 2010 was the highest among countries reviewed. Most of this did not come from the Korean government. Private expenditure accounted for 72.74% of post-secondary institutions funding, third highest in the OECD.

5. United States
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 42.5%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 1.4% (the least)
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 7.3% (6th highest)

Public spending increased by 5% on average among OECD countries between 2008 and 2010. In the United States, however, spending decreased by 1% during that time. Still, the U.S. spent more than $22,700 per student in 2010 across all levels of education, by far the most among countries reviewed. Once they have 10 years of experience under their belt, American secondary school teachers earn some of the highest salaries for their profession among developed nations. Yet, on average, 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. display the lowest mathematical proficiency out of all the countries assessed by the OECD.

4. Israel
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 46.4%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): n/a
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 7.5% (5th highest)

In Israel, 18- to 21-year-old men and 18- to 20-year-old women are required to enlist in the military. According to the OECD, this has resulted in much lower levels of enrollment for residents in this age group. The average graduate from a tertiary program in Israel also tends to be older than in much of the OECD. Annual spending per student for primary through tertiary education is considerably lower than other well-educated countries. With two American chemists who emigrated from Israel winning the Nobel Prize recently, the country may attempt to boost tertiary funding in the future, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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3. Japan
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 46.4%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 3.0% (14th lowest)
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 5.1% (6th lowest)

Japan spent a smaller percentage of its GDP on education than the average country measured by the OECD. But the country still has one of the most educated populations in the world. Additionally, nearly 23% of Japanese adults were proficient at the highest levels of literacy, roughly double the U.S. proportion. High school graduation rates were also among the best in the world in 2011. According to the OECD, average yearly spending per tertiary student in 2010 was considerably higher than the OECD average, and it is expected to increase.

2. Canada
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 51.3%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 2.3%
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 6.6% (10th highest)

As of 2011, about one in four Canadian adults — the highest proportion in the OECD — had attained a career-oriented, skill-based education. In 2010, Canada spent $16,300 for post-secondary schooling per student annually, second only to the United States, which spent well over $20,000 per student. As a percentage of GDP, Canada spent nearly double the OECD average on the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

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1. Russian Federation
> Pct. population with tertiary education: 53.5%
> Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): n/a
> Education expenditure as pct. of GDP: 4.9% (5th lowest)

In 2011, more than half of Russia’s population 25 to 64 had attained a tertiary education. Additionally, nearly 95% of adults held at least an upper-secondary qualification at that time, compared with the OECD average of 75%. Russia has, according to the OECD, a “historically strong investment in education.” However, recent news could tarnish Russia’s well-educated image. Reports suggest widespread corruption in the education system, including cheating on standardized tests, selling of doctorates to politicians and the wealthy and fake thesis factories.

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