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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson August 17, 2010

Laura Tyson correct that U.S. lags in college graduation rates but overstates severity of high school dropout numbers

During the Aug. 15, 2010, edition of ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour, Laura Tyson -- who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council under President Bill Clinton -- discussed what she considers a root problem with the American economy and the current rash of high unemployment.

She said, "Let me turn to investment in education. It is the case -- we used to be number one in the world in college graduation rates. We are now number 14, number 15. We're leading the world in high school dropout rates. And as I said, the unemployment problem is most severe in dropouts." (In fact, we rated a separate claim of hers from This Week that compared unemployment rates for those with and without college degrees. We gave it a Mostly True.)

We wondered whether it was true that the United States ranks 14th or 15th internationally in college graduation rates and whether we're really first in high school dropout rates.

To answer the question, we turned to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD is a group of 32 large, industrialized democracies. It produces statistics on a wide variety of economic and social topics that are considered the best way to compare the U.S. to its international peers.

On college graduation rates, we found a table that compared 22 countries in 2007 on what proportion of the population has graduated from college by the typical college graduation age in that country. On that list, the U.S. does indeed rank 14th, with 36.5 percent having a college degree. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Sweden and the United Kingdom all ranked higher than the U.S., while Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Switzerland all ranked lower.

So on this statistic, Tyson seems to be correct.

Meanwhile, the OECD doesn't directly calculate high school dropout rates. We can come close by looking at a statistic that the group does track -- high school graduation rates.

We looked at another table and found that the U.S. has the eighth-lowest high-school graduation rate among the countries studied. The U.S. trails Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The countries with a lower high-school graduation rate are Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

So on this one, Tyson is off by quite a bit, though the U.S. still has higher dropout rates than the OECD average.

Meanwhile, several experts warned us about a few caveats to keep in mind about these international comparisons. First, in some countries -- especially Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom -- the college graduation rates can be skewed by the presence of a lot of foreign college students. When the percentage is calculated, these students add to the numerator (that is, the number of students graduating college) but not to the denominator (the universe of possible native-born students), thus making the percentages seem higher than they would be otherwise.

Second, despite the OECD's best efforts to standardize the data, there are still some variations from country to country in the nature and quality of the statistics. We noticed that while the college graduation rate for the U.S. and a number of other OECD countries rose by a few percentage points from 2000 to 2007, several countries posted increases of 10 to 15 percentage points, and Iceland nearly doubled its rate from 33 percent to 63 percent.

Such massive increases probably stem from a mixture of methodological differences and a concerted effort in Europe to improve educational attainment during the past decade, said David Bills, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Education and a specialist in international statistical comparisons. "But overall, OECD is generally reliable for assessing the big picture, if not the fine points," he added.

So let's recap. Allowing for some general caution over international education comparisons, Tyson was on the money where college graduation rates were concerned, but was wrong that the U.S. led the world in high-school dropout rates. She bats .500, so we rate her statement Half True.

Our Sources

Laura Tyson, comments in an interview on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour, Aug. 15, 2010

OECD, "Tertiary Education Graduation Rates" (table), accessed Aug. 17, 2010

OECD, "Current Upper Secondary Graduation Rate" (table), accessed Aug. 17, 2010

OECD, "Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2009; Annex 3: Sources, methods and technical notes; Chapter A: The output of educational institutions and the impact of learning," 2009

E-mail interview with Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's Indicators and Analysis Division in the Directorate for Education, Aug. 17, 2010

E-mail interview with David Bills, professor at the University of Iowa College of Education, Aug. 17, 2010

E-mail interview with Val Plisko, associate commissioner for early childhood, international and crosscutting studies at the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, Aug. 12, 2010

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Laura Tyson correct that U.S. lags in college graduation rates but overstates severity of high school dropout numbers

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