Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Attainment Rates

September 11

Those OECD Attainment Numbers

The OECD’s annual Education at a Glance publication was released on Tuesday.  There weren’t a whole lot of shockers in there, but one thing that always sets Canadians crowing is the table that looks at tertiary educational attainment because, at first glance, we seem to do really well on that measure.  To wit:

Figure 1: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-64 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012














Yay Canada!  We’re number one!

Well, hang on a second.  A lot of that is because we’ve been in the mass higher education game longer than anyone else: indeed our 55-64 year olds are in a class of their own.  But when it comes to educating young people, it’s a different story.  To wit:

Figure 2: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012














Okay, still not bad.  Our attainment rate is higher among young people than the general population (57% vs. 53%), which means we’re making some progress, albeit slow.  And we’re still 18 points above the OECD average.  But notice we’re third now, behind Korea and Japan.

Now let’s look specifically at degree-level attainment rates – or, what in international educational statistics-speak is known as “Tertiary Level 5A” – as opposed to tertiary rates.

Figure 3: Tertiary 5A Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012














See, now this is quite a different picture.  If we’re simply looking at obtaining degrees, Canada is actually below the OECD average.  We’d need to increase our degree attainment rates by almost 50% to be in first place here.  The reason for this, of course, is that unlike most countries, Canada has a big “Tertiary B” sector, as shown below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Tertiary 5B Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012














Interpreting the 5B data is a bit tricky, partly because Tertiary B data looks very different depending on the country, but also partly because the Canadian data is a mess.  In some countries, Tertiary B is purely vocational; in others (for instance, Korean and the US) the figures include junior college associate degrees, which in other countries would be considered incomplete 5A degrees.

In Canada, the Tertiary B figure is mostly traditional community college/polytechnic completers below degree level.  But it also includes a number of other types that make it not entirely comparable to other countries, including:

  • CEGEP Graduates who Never Went on to Universities.  Few other countries would consider people with only 13 years of schooling to be Tertiary B;
  • Trade/Apprenticeship Certificate Holders.  In Europe, where apprenticeship systems are considered part of the secondary system, these kinds of programs would be considered level 4 or even level 3;
  • Private Vocational College Credential Holders.  Again, these are usually one year or less in duration, and it’s unlikely most countries would consider them equivalent to Tertiary B.

Now, there’s nothing sinister here – these differences aren’t an attempt to “juice” our numbers.  The first two issues are the result of structural differences – part and parcel of the difficulties of trying to standardize data internationally across not-entirely-parallel systems.  The third one – private vocational credentials – is an outgrowth of the fact that this data is taken from various Labour Force Surveys, and the wording of the relevant question on our survey is just a little looser than in other countries.

All of this is to say that a “Canada’s Number One” narrative based on the OECD numbers isn’t necessarily warranted.  In some ways, we may even be falling behind.

April 24

Using Comparative Labour Market Outcome Data to Think About Education

So, recently, a colleague sent me some data produced by CMEC on the subject of labour market outcomes by educational attainment, among 16-65 year-olds.  Here’s the first one, showing outcomes for Canada.

Labour Market Status by Educational Attainment, 16-65 Year-Olds, Canada, 2012 (Source: The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2012)













And here’s a similar one, showing the same thing for the OECD as a whole.

Labour Market Status by Educational Attainment, 16-65 Year-Olds, OECD, 2012 (Source: The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2012)













(Just so we’re clear, when talking about the OECD as a whole, “College” means PSE below bachelor’s degree [ISCED 4/5B for higher ed data nerds], “university” means PSE bachelor’s degree or higher [ISCED 5A/6], and “PSE” refers to the two combined.  That’s not a perfect translation of what those qualifications mean in other OECD countries, but it’s close enough.)

If we compare Canada and the OECD, we notice two things right away. First, there are some pretty massive differences in education levels.  Fully 60% of Canadians have some kind of credential, compared to an OECD-wide average of just 36%.  Second, there is also a difference in employment levels: 75% in Canada versus 69% in the OECD.

An optimist (or at least a higher education lobbyist) would no doubt try to link these two factors, and say: Yay Canada!  Our higher attainment rate causes higher labour force participation rates!  And while that’s certainly one way to read the data, it’s not the only way.

Try looking at it like this: in both the OECD and Canada, exactly one-sixth of the PSE-educated population is either unemployed or not looking for work (6/36 in OECD, 10/60 in Canada).  In Canada, 35% of people with no PSE are either unemployed or not looking for work; in the OECD, 39% are.  Not a huge difference.  A much more pessimistic reading of this data, therefore, is thus: to a large degree, Canada educates people to no real purpose. The fact that we have a higher percentage of the population educated hasn’t appreciably increased the probability (at least vis-à-vis other OECD countries) that those with higher education are employed.

There is, of course, a third reading of the data: that education levels and employment levels aren’t linked statically in any meaningful way.  National labour markets develop in different ways over time, in response to varied economic conditions.  Countries with varying education/skill compositions can have similar levels of employment (though not necessarily similar levels of national income); conversely, countries with identical sets of skills can have quite different levels of employment and output, depending on a host of other institutional and environmental factors.  As a result, generalizing about economic outcomes based on educational ones is a bit of a mug’s game.

I’d kind of like the first option to be true.  But overall, my money’s on number three.

April 16

Attainment Rates 101

Apparently, the new Liberal Leader has decided that one of his touchstone policies will be to raise post-secondary attainment rates in Canada from 50% to 70%.  No details yet on how he plans to achieve this, but that’s not my focus today.  Rather, I’d like to look at the underlying math of how you move an attainment rate.

An attainment rate is the percentage of a given population that has completed a certain level of education.  Although Trudeau has never specified what age-range he’s talking about, the 50% figure (second-best in the world, as it happens) seems to come from OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG), and one can therefore infer that it covers the 25-64 age range.

Evaluating the feasibility of moving the needle on attainment depends on the time-frame in which one expects to complete the task.  Trudeau hasn’t specified this either, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that the intended period is ten years.

To understand how this might work, let’s break-down attainment rates by age, as we do, below, in figure 1.

Figure 1 – Attainment Rates by Age Cohort, 2011













One thing you can see right away is that attainment rates will naturally increase as younger, better educated 25 year-olds replace older, less well-educated 64 year-olds.  (though not dramatically so, because Canada’s 55-64 year-olds are fairly well-educated).  Thus, the status quo alone would raise the attainment rate to 53.5%.

Now, the burden of raising attainment rates tends to fall on the youth who are just leaving high school, because it’s a lot easier to get them into post-secondary education than it is people already in the labour force.  But doing this one youth cohort at a time is a tough slog – even more so in Canada, where that youth cohort is actually less numerous than the cohorts ahead of it.

A thought experiment can help illustrate how tough this is: imagine for a moment that every single kid who attends secondary school over the next decade not only graduates from high school, but also graduates from college or university – this would achieve a 100% attainment rate.  But here’s the kicker: even if this miracle occurred, it would only raise attainment rates for the population as a whole to 64%.

Figure 2 – A Miracle Attainment Scenario for 2021













Assuming that going all Soylent Green on the less-educated elderly is out of the question, then the only other way to bump attainment rates to this high a figure, within a decade, would be to go on the mother-of-all-adult education campaigns.  Except that Canada has a pretty terrible record with adult education, so it’s not clear how we’d do that.

Verdict?  A 70% attainment rate might be achievable in twenty years, but not ten.  And so even if he’s blessed with his father’s political longevity, it’s simply not something Justin Trudeau could ever hope to achieve during his time in office.