America's Wasteful Higher Education Spending, In a Chart

We spend more of our economy on higher education than almost any other developed country, and achieve some of the worst results. 
More

How badly do Americans overspend on college? Look at it this way: We devote more of our economy to postsecondary education than any other developed country (except South Korea, with whom we're tied), according to a new report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. But we're rated near the bottom of the 20 countries included by college spending "efficiency"—or, degrees earned per percentage point of GDP spent.*

This certainly isn't the only way to measure the quality or effectiveness of a higher ed system. Nor does it capture all the benefits of our higher education spending. At least some of our costs are driven by elite colleges, for instance, which are still the most admired in the world. We pay a lot for them, and we get a lot from them.

But some much these costs are driven by the low end of U.S. higher ed, the colleges that are functionally dropout factories. Unlike, say, Germany with its renowned apprenticeship systems, there aren't really great alternatives to college if you want a middle-class life in the United States. So ill-prepared young adults flood into degree programs they never finish, leaving the U.S. with some of the lowest completion rates in the developed world. 

In other words, what makes this chart truly galling isn't that we're spending extraordinary amounts of money to produce college graduates. It's that we're spending extraordinary amounts of money to produce college dropouts. 


*The weighted measure gives more credit to countries for graduating students from four-year, rather than two-year, colleges, which benefits the United States. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In