Education is critical to the future of the U.S. economy, something that President Obama hammered home to the American public in his recent speech about the American Jobs Act, which proposes to renovate over 35,000 schools. Hovering over much of the president's rhetoric is the specter of ascendant emerging economies. "Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility," Obama said gravely in his State of the Union address this year, "and the world's fastest computer."
Today the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released some hard numbers that confirm this startling decline of the West and the rise of the rest. Although the West that's declining is almost exclusively America.
The United States, with only 5 percent of the world's population, is still home to over a quarter of the world's college graduates, according to the OECD's "Education at a Glance 2011." This triumphant statistic is less comforting, however, when you break it down by age. A smaller percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds in the United States are as educated as their 55-to-64-year-old parents, while the rest of the world's young people are earning college degrees in ever-higher numbers. As a result, America has experienced a striking relative decline. An astounding 36 percent of 55-to-64-year-olds with a higher education are in the United States, but only 21 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds with higher degrees do the same.
Among young people, the U.S. is now 15th among the 34 countries that the OECD studied, when it comes to higher education. And it scrapes the bottom when it comes to college graduates aged 25 to 34 who are entering science-related fields, with under half as many as No. 1 South Korea. And adding to the problem, high school graduation rates in America are below the OECD average.
Of course, much of this is because the U.S. had high rates to begin with: Over 40 percent of its baby boomers have a college degree. America had less space to grow, just like Israel -- a country that has similarly stagnated. In contrast, the percentage of Koreans between 55 and 64 with a higher education is in the teens, with lots of room for improvement.
It's just startling that Korea's improvement has vastly overtaken American numbers: 60 percent of young Koreans are now earning tertiary degrees. Other countries with longtime high college graduation rates, like Canada and Russia, have managed to maintain their growth.
"There's no decline in the supply of well-educated people," said Matthias Rumpf, a U.S. spokesman for the OECD. "And if you look at the universities overall, at least on the upper tier, the universities in the U.S. are among the best in the world. But the situation is changing. There will be more people outside the U.S. with similar levels of education."
The charts tell a worrying story: The world is getting more educated, and the United States is not. As the OECD writes, "tertiary graduation rates indicate a country's capacity to produce workers with advanced, specialized knowledge and skills." With the economy globalizing, U.S. workers are increasingly competing against Irish, Danish and Korean workers too, and if these trends continue, the competitive edge that made the 20th century "the American Century," may slip as we continue into the 21st.
There are a litany of reasons for American students to pursue higher education, and for the American public to encourage them to do so. A college graduate will earn, on average, 79 percent more than his degree-less peer, contributing $190,000 more to the U.S. government coffers over his lifetime.
Looking at the data, a college education in the U.S. is a great investment, according to Rumpf, even though it's one of the more expensive higher education systems in the world. "That high upfront investment might actually prevent people who don't have the financial means," he said. And that's a whole other problem.
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