What are the risks of missing out on upper secondary education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of 16-29 year-olds at or below numeracy proficiency level 1,
by education attainment, 2012

In just a couple of decades, upper secondary schooling has been transformed from a vehicle towards upward social mobility into a minimum requirement for life in modern societies.

The most recent OECD data on educational attainment show that in OECD countries in 2013, 34% of 55-64 year-olds but 16% of 25-34 year-olds did not have an upper secondary education. In other words, over 30 years the share of low-educated adults has been cut in half. But progress is slowing. While education systems continue to expand tertiary education, many countries are struggling to further reduce the share of young people without upper secondary education. Some young people seem to have lost faith in the capacity of school to improve their lives; others become demotivated by the perceived lack of relevance of what they learn in schools. But these students are almost certainly underestimating the risks of dropping out of school.

The latest Education Indicators in Focus brings together some of the evidence in Education at a Glance on the benefits of acquiring an upper secondary education. The chart above, based on an analysis of data collected by the Survey of Adult Skills (a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC), shows the magnitude of the gap between 16-29 years-olds with an upper secondary education and those without in the probability of ending up with poor numeracy proficiency. While having a tertiary education further reduces the probability of having low numeracy skills, the gap is less significant. On average across countries that participated in the survey, at least 29% of dropouts do not reach the minimum level proficiency in numeracy. Having an upper secondary education cuts that probability by more than half, to 13%. This gap is particularly wide in Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The poor skills associated with a lack of upper secondary education have an impact far beyond the walls of any classroom. For example, across OECD countries, 28% of 16-29 year-olds not in education are unemployed (in Greece, Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain, over 40% of this group are unemployed). An upper secondary education reduces the risk of unemployment for this age group to 16%. Meanwhile, 25-34 year-olds without an upper secondary education earn 17% less than adults the same age who do have upper secondary education, and this earnings gap has widened in recent years. In addition, 79% of adults (25-64 year-olds) with upper secondary education reported being in good health, but only 65% of adults without that level of education and 59% of adults whose lack of upper secondary education is combined with poor literacy skills reported so.

Upper secondary education also works as a springboard to continuing education and lifelong learning. In the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), 47% of adults with upper secondary education reported participating in formal and/or non-formal education, but only 27% of adults without that level of education reported so. When combined with poor literacy proficiency, the share shrank to only 21%. Without an upper secondary education, the desire for learning and the foundation skills needed to benefit from lifelong learning appear to be weaker.

One could argue that when countries reduce the numbers of dropouts, the relative risks for those who do drop out increase. But the data show that this is not necessarily the case. Canada, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland all combine relatively small shares of low-educated 25-34 year-olds with relatively modest unemployment rates in that age group.

Completing upper secondary school  has become a kind of threshold to the rest of life, and greater opportunities await those who make it across. Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives. Second-chance education opportunities are relatively rare and hard to access, and workplace training and lifelong education are not readily available for those who missed the boat earlier in life. The message couldn’t be simpler: if you want to reap the benefits of education, let education propel you across the threshold.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 34, by Markus Schwabe and √Čric Charbonnier 
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm 
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database


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