Higher education, also known as tertiary education in some countries, refers to all post-secondary education, including both public and private universities, colleges, technical training institutes, and vocational schools. Higher education is instrumental in fostering growth, reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity. A highly-skilled workforce, with a solid post-secondary education, is a prerequisite for innovation and growth: well- educated people are more employable, earn higher wages, and cope with economic shocks better.
Higher education benefits not just the individual, but society as well. Graduates of higher education are more environmentally conscious, have healthier habits, and have a higher level of civic participation. Also, increased tax revenues from higher earnings, healthier children, and reduced family size all build stronger nations. In short, higher education institutions prepare individuals not only by providing them with adequate and relevant job skills, but also by preparing them to be active members of their communities and societies.
The economic returns for higher education graduates are the highest in the entire educational system — an estimated 17 percent increase in earnings as compared with 10 percent for primary and 7 percent for secondary education.
Today, there are around 200 million higher education students in the world, up from 89 million in 1998. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, the number of students in higher education programs has nearly doubled in the past decade. This is critical because, according to a World Bank Group (WBG) report, a student with a higher education degree in the region will earn more than twice as much as a student with just a high school diploma.
As the youth population continues to swell and graduation rates in elementary and secondary education have increased dramatically in recent years, especially in regions like South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, there is an intense demand for expanded access to tertiary education. Technical and vocational education and training can provide students with skills and knowledge relevant to the labor market. This massive growth is expected to continue, making higher education a critical public policy issue.
Governments are increasingly realizing that the entire educational system—from early childhood through tertiary education-- must reflect the new social and economic needs of the global economy, which increasingly demands a better-trained, more skilled, and adaptable workforce.
Challenges remain: even though there is a larger pool of graduates of higher education, many still don’t have the relevant skills needed for a successful integration into the labor market. At the same time, the large numbers of students puts a strain on publicly-funded institutions of higher learning and many countries with limited resources are struggling to finance the growing needs of a larger student body, without compromising the quality of their educational offerings. Higher education also remains out of reach for many of the world’s poorest and most marginalized. In Latin America and the Caribbean, on average, the poorest 50 percent of the population only represented 25 percent of higher education students in 2013.
A number of countries have undertaken major restructuring of their tertiary education systems to enhance their reach and effectiveness. However, progress has been uneven. Countries across the world need to ensure that their national policies prioritize equitable access, improved learning, efficient retention, and increased assurance of the success of all qualified students, regardless of background. Both policies and program degrees need to be better tailored to fit the needs of the local economy. Only then can governments realize the gains in primary and secondary school attainment and turn their successes into increased and sustained economic and social development.
Last Updated: Oct 05, 2017