Educational Attainment Worldwide on the Rise

People all over the world are completing more years of schooling than ever. More than 61 percent of individuals 15 or older—just over 3 billion people—finished at least some secondary school during their lifetimes as of 2010.1 This proportion has risen from 36 percent in 1970 and from 50 percent in 1990.2 (See Figure 1.) This category includes those who completed secondary school and those who went on to colleges and universities and perhaps graduated from there. Having advanced to secondary school or beyond not only indicates that individuals are better prepared for the future; it also highlights educational success, since students are unlikely to advance to higher educational levels without having completed prior schooling.

These educational attainment data are based on a novel assessment of the world’s schooling compiled by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID).3 (See Figure 2.) Unlike the World Bank and other school enrollment databases, which provide static enrollment figures, the IIASA-VID approach estimates and measures total lifetime educational achievement—the highest level of schooling ever achieved by each person. This approach reveals changes in education levels reached by all adults rather than merely children and other people currently enrolled in school.

In 2010, according to the data, only about 1 in 10 adult males (adults here means everyone older than 15) and 1 in 5 adult females had no schooling whatsoever.4 While their numbers have grown with world population generally, the proportion of unschooled or primary-schooled-only adults decreased from 64 percent of the adult population in 1970 to 39 percent today.5 (See Figure 3.)

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