College Graduates Have an Edge Over Non-Degree-Holders, Reveals PIAAC Study on Adult Skills

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Posted By Eliana Osborn on April 13, 2016 at 12:17 pm
College Graduates Have an Edge Over Non-Degree-Holders, Reveals PIAAC Study on Adult Skills

Most can agree that college is about more than getting through and earning a degree. Students are gaining knowledge to broaden horizons, prepare for a career, and enhance their lives. In addition to research that’s found college benefits entrepreneurial thinking and increases communication skills, new findings on American literacy and numeracy, vis-à-vis the rest of the world, point to some essential benefits of higher education.

The OECD just released the latest Survey of Adult Skills, also known as PIAAC, a global measure of how well people use written and mathematical information that comes up in work and social life. Twenty wealthy countries are included in the data sorted by age and employment status. According to the OECD, PIAAC “measures the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper.”

So where do Americans stand in numeracy and literacy? The National Center for Education Statistics analyzed the PIAAC data, digging into greater detail on how the US measures up. Here are some of the main findings.

College-educated Americans ranking higher in literacy worldwide

Though the US average score falls in line with the international average, the highest and lowest levels are both represented more significantly in America than in other countries measured. Adults between 25 and 44, in particular, are most likely to lie in the highest quintile.

Literacy is measured from below level 1 through level 5. Level 1 proficiency “requires the respondent to read relatively short digital or print continuous, non-continuous, or mixed texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question or directive… Little, if any, competing information is present. Some tasks may require simple cycling through more than one piece of information. Knowledge and skill in recognizing basic vocabulary, determining the meaning of sentences, and reading paragraphs of text is expected.”

In the US, 17% of adults are at or below level 1 in literacy. The international average is 15%. To have a larger population functioning at this most basic level of literacy does not reflect positively on America’s education system, especially as the youngest adults skew toward the bottom end of the scale.

27% of American adults surveyed hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Unemployed graduates measure up to international averages in literacy; at level 4/5, more Americans are represented than the average. Adults between 16 and 34 are also ahead of the curve for literacy.

Americans falling behind globally in numeracy skills

In PIAAC, numeracy is explained as “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”

Twenty-seven percent of American adults are at or below level 1 in numeracy, compared to 19% across the twenty countries surveyed. Fewer Americans are in the highest bracket versus internationally as well. Compared with international averages, US numeracy results are significantly lower, with just Ireland, France, Italy and Spain scoring lower among the developed countries measured.

Level 1 numeracy skills include “carrying out basic mathematical processes in common, concrete contexts where the mathematical content is explicit with little text and minimal distractors. Tasks usually require one-step or simple processes involving counting, sorting, performing basic arithmetic operations, understanding simple percents such as 50%, and locating and identifying elements of simple or common graphical or spatial representations.” This is the highest level of competency reached by more than a third of American adults.

In numeracy, unemployed college graduates fall behind international numbers, just as in the overall American statistics. Generally, young adults in the US – defined as ages 16-34 – are closer to global averages, but still behind. Numeracy—applying math in real life situations—is an area where Americans of all ages and educational levels are lacking. As colleges work on campus writing or technology initiatives, consideration is needed to address this deficiency.

In spite of shortcomings in the overall population, across every measure, American college graduates are more competent than their peers without degrees. The PIAAC life skills may not be what students major in, but greater levels of educational attainment via the college experience are better preparing them for success in essential life skills.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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