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State of the South: Rank Education Globally, Act Locally

State of the South: Rank Education Globally, Act Locally

The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has just released its annual “Education at a Glance,’’ which opens with an editorial observing that the 2013 report “comes at a time when youth unemployment keeps policy makers awake at night.” For the American South, the OECD report raises anew the question of whether our region is running fast enough in the international education race.

The chart below updates a graphic that appeared in MDC’s 2010 The State of the South, Chapter 2, headlined, Talent and Skill: Antidotes to Uncertainty. It combines data from the OECD, an organization of 34 countries that works to improve economic and social well-being, and the U.S. Census Bureau to show how Southern states rank in terms of 25 to 34 year olds with at least a two-year degree in 2011.

The 2011 snapshot suggests at least modest improvement over the 2009 snapshot reported in The State of the South—somewhat higher percentages of 25 to 34 year olds with education beyond high school within the U.S., within the South, and across industrialized nations. And yet, as in 2009, among the Southern states only Virginia exceeded the U.S. level of attainment. Second among Southern states, North Carolina fell four percentage points below the U.S. rate. At 39 percent, North Carolina matched the OECD average. Most Southern states fell below both the U.S. and OECD.

In addition to its overall report, the OECD released a short commentary on the United States, where a debate over the value of college-going continues. The OECD commentary points out that “during recessionary periods, high general unemployment makes the transition from school to work substantially more difficult for young people, as those with more work experience are favored over new entrants into the labor market.” Thus, unemployment has risen indeed among working-age adults with what the OECD calls a “tertiary’’ degree—in American terms, an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. Among people 25 to 64 years old, the recession drove unemployment up from a 2.4 percent average in 2008 to 4.9 percent in 2011. Still, adults lacking a postsecondary degree had even higher unemployment rates, as the OECD reported. Adults with a high school diploma, but no further degree, had an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent in 2011; adults without a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 16.2 percent.

Another challenging slice of data from the OECD offers insight into the U.S. as a nation that has long valued higher education but now finds its international economic competitors catching up. With 41 percent of its 55 to 64 year olds with a postsecondary degree, the U.S. ranks 4th in the world in mature working-age adults with a postsecondary degree—an indication that American baby boomers saw great value in going to college and that colleges and universities were accessible and affordable to the post-World War II generation. And yet, with 43 percent of its 25 to 34 year olds with a postsecondary degree, the U.S. ranks 12th, meaning that more nations are now running ahead of the U.S. in producing college graduates. Changing this trend will require action at the local—not just national—level. MDC’s Partners for Postsecondary Success communities focused on these education, employment, and access connections, with a dual aim of increasing educational attainment and fostering more equitable access to opportunities for employment and civic engagement. For example, the No Limits No Excuses initiative in Amarillo, Texas, has engaged secondary, postsecondary, and business communities to create pathways to education beyond high school that lead to good jobs and advancement opportunities.

One more observation from the OECD: The proportion of 15 to 29 year olds who are neither employed nor in education or training (NEET) also increased. From 2008 to 2011, the increase across OECD countries on average was 2.1 percentage points; in the United States, it was 1.3 percentage points. The OECD recommends that “regardless of the economic climate, education systems should ensure that individuals have the skills that are needed to succeed in the labor market, and work to reduce the proportion of young adults who are neither in school nor in work.” This, too, will require a local response. MDC made similar recommendations for Durham in our October 2012 report Made in Durham: Building an Education-to-Career System. While these global rankings may be hard to grasp (or even disheartening), they can—and should—kickstart local responses that move individuals, states, and eventually nations to better education and employment outcomes.

*MDC Program Managers Alyson Zandt  and Abby Parcell provided research assistance and background on MDC's work for this post.

(Click to view larger image.)

Sources: OECD and U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey