Spending Per Student and Per Capita GDP: International Snapshots

Bottom line: the US spends more per capita than any other country on earth. And it would cost us even more to increase that spending. 

The better question: why do we get so little bang for our buck? 

The United States spend way more than any other country on higher education on a per capita basis, and way more than would be predicted based on per capita GDP.

Here’s one more comparison, looking at the share of adults who have a postsecondary degree of some kind. In the figure, the light blue bars show the share in the 55-64 age bracket who have such a degree, while the dark blue bars show the share in the 25-34 age bracket with such a degree. One would generally expect that as higher education expands, a larger share of those in the younger group should have postsecondary degrees, compared with those in the older group, and this pattern holds for most countries.

But notice that for the US, the age 55-64 group was in general more educated than the rest of the world, with the exception of Canada. But for the 25-64 group, the US is still above the OECD average in share with a postsecondary degree, but a number of other countries are now substantially ahead, and the US is much more middle-of-the-pack. When combined with the previous figure, this makes some sense. Given that the US spends vastly more on a per person basis for higher education, it’s more costly for the US to provide a big expansion of higher education for the young adults of today.