OECD Report Links Higher-Education Access With Student Support, Despite Tuition

September 11, 2012

High tuition costs are not necessarily a deterrent to disadvantaged young people in deciding whether to attend university, so long as widely available student-loan and support programs are also in place, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The finding, which will resonate widely at a time when many governments are discussing whether to raise tuition in their efforts to increase financing for higher education, is among the results in "Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators," the latest edition in an annual series that analyzes education data from the Paris-based group's 34 member countries, which include many European countries as well as Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United States. As in previous years, the compilation also includes data from non-OECD countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, India, and Russia.

The absence of a correlation between high tuition fees and social mobility was among the report's more surprising results, according to Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's Educational Statistics and Analysis Division and the report's main author.

During an online briefing in which he highlighted the report's findings, Mr. Schleicher singled out as the best example of this phenomenon Britain, where tuition rates have increased substantially in recent years and in some parts of the country are tripling this autumn, but which also has a generous student-loan program. Countries in this category, which also includes Australia, Canada, and the United States, have some of the world's highest university enrollment rates, although the figures to some extent also reflect the large numbers of international students these countries attract.

In contrast, some countries that charge very little or even no tuition but that also have minimal student support systems in place have relatively low participation rates in higher education, compared to other OECD countries. Many European countries, including Austria, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and Spain, are in this category. In addition to low graduation rates, these countries also tend to have some of the most socially inequitable higher-education outcomes, Mr. Schleicher said, because when very limited public support is made available to students, affluent students tend to end up in higher education while those from disadvantaged backgrounds do not.

Although overall higher-education attainment levels in the United States have long been high and 42 percent of young people have earned a higher-education credential, the nation ranks only 14th in the world in this measure and its attainment level is growing at a slower rate than those of other OECD countries. The report predicts than several countries, including Finland, Israel, and Russia, will surpass American attainment levels in the coming years.

The United States also performs disappointingly in a key measure of social mobility. In 1995, the nation ranked second only to New Zealand in its higher-education graduation rate, but by 2010 it had fallen to 13th place, as other countries expanded their systems and improved access, and college costs soared in the United States. The chances of a young person whose parents did not attend university being in higher education are just 29 percent, although Mr. Schleicher emphasized that the report's figures do not include those studying for qualifications such as associate degrees.

The report also highlights key trends in the internationalization of higher education. The United States remains the global leader, enrolling 16.6 percent of international students in 2010, but Mr. Schleicher attributes this dominance largely to the country's size relative to its nearest competitors.

While tuition costs do not necessarily deter international students as long as quality is high, cost considerations may play an important role for international students in choosing between similar options. "The deterioration of the United States' market share may be attributed to the comparatively high tuition fees charged to international students in a context of fierce competition from other, primarily English-speaking, destinations offering similar educational opportunities at lower cost," says the report.