Attainment levels

Educational attainment, in terms of the highest level of education completed, is associated with various positive outcomes. Pellegrino and Hilton (2013) reviewed studies and concluded that educational attainment is a stronger predictor of labour market success than measures of cognitive skills, personality traits, and intra-and interpersonal competencies. Workers who are better educated have better abilities to complete a given task, learn more from complex task training, and are more efficient in allocating work resources compared to workers who had attended school for lesser number of years. 

Countries recognize that educational attainment is important to the economy because by logic of reasoning: more years of schooling means workforce will become more highly skilled and productive, leading to higher output of goods and services and eventually a stronger economy (Barro & Lee, 2001). Other than economic outcomes, educational attainment is also related to social outcomes, such as health, population growth, and income distribution (for data set of educational attainment in the world between 1950 and 2010, see Barro & Lee, 2013).

To develop a workforce that can meet the demands of the new economy, education systems have to anticipate these needs and keep up with the changes. Dede (2007) argued that the emergence of a global, knowledge-based workplace require the new generation of workers to gain 21st century skills and knowledge. Workers of the new economy does not necessary equate to employees of new businesses as current trends show that students are more likely to start their own businesses. Therefore, educational attainment is not only a matter of the number of years of schooling people complete, but also the range of knowledge, skills, and competencies they acquired to take on the responsibilities of leading the world’s economy in the upcoming century. 

21st century skills and competences

As information and communications technologies (ICT) continue to advance and expand their capabilities to cover tasks that were previously done by people (i.e., routine cognitive or manual tasks being replaced by computer programs), people need to move on to more complex and specialized tasks to sustain economic progress (Dede, 2010). Voogt and Roblin (2012) compared eight frameworks of 21st century skills and competences and concluded that all frameworks appear to be quite consistent, especially in these four areas:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information and communications technology literacy
  • Social and/ or cultural skills and citizenship. 

Most frameworks also identified creativity, critical thinking, productivity, and problem solving as important skills to acquire in the 21st century (for review, see Voogt & Roblin, 2012). At first glance, some of these skills may seem to have always been important in education, so why do we need to call these 21st century skills? Dede (2010) maintained that 21st century skills may not be new but contextualizing them to the new era is crucial for education. Using collaboration as an example, acquiring the skills is different from the past in at least two ways: 

  • Degree of importance. Collaboration has been important in the past but the level of importance is raised in the 21st century because work in the future can only be accomplished by specialized groups of people whose expertise and roles complement each other.
  • Nature of collaborating. With newer technologies, collaboration may mean working with someone whom one may never meet in person. Such mediated interactions require a more complex form of collaborative skills. 

To sum up,  educational attainment can predict a country’s economic and social status. Therefore, countries should continue to invest in education to increase educational attainment and promote the acquisition of 21st century skills and competences during schooling years so that their people can gain a foothold in the new economy. It is not about reinventing the wheel, but about rethinking how the 21st century skills and competences are incorporated into the educational curricula. There is also a need to focus on higher education research to examine and provide evidence for effective instructional approaches that will enhance educational attainment. 


Barro, R. J., & Lee, J. W. (2001). International data on educational attainment: updates and implications. oxford Economic papers, 53(3), 541-563.

Barro, R. J., & Lee, J. W. (2013). A new data set of educational attainment in the world, 1950–2010. Journal of development economics, 104, 184-198.

Dede, C. (2007). Transforming education for the 21st century: New pedagogies that help all students attain sophisticated learning outcomes. Commissioned by the NCSU Friday Institute.

Dede, C. (2010). Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.). 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (51–75). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (Eds.). (2013). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Voogt, J., & Roblin, N. P. (2012). A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century competences: Implications for national curriculum policies. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44(3), 299-321.