Is higher education the ‘new secondary’? New paper out in Demography

Is post-secondary education a different kind of animal compared to primary and secondary school, or is it ‘more of the same’? It is easy to list ways in which it certainly differs. The funding model is very different, as is institutional governance. Its students are at a very different life stage. However, none of these differences imply that the way participation in post-secondary education has increased over time necessarily follows a distinct pattern. In particular, if the only difference were that post-secondary is growing more slowly than primary and secondary schooling did, this begs the question: is it likewise on a path towards universal participation? What’s the evidence whether “higher education is the new secondary”?

The excellent Robin Shields (University of Bath) and I investigated this question in an article that just came out in the journal Demography: “Just Another Level? Comparing Quantitative Patterns of Global Expansion of School and Higher Education Attainment” ( First we reviewed various theories that seek to explain higher education expansion to see what (if anything) they had to say (or implicitly assumed) about whether it would eventually hit a ceiling. Then we compared the statistical patterns of expansion trajectories at different levels of education.

In a way this paper grew out of a practical problem that I faced when I was working on educational projections: should we assume that post-secondary can potentially become truly universal for 100% of a cohort, or should we assume that it inevitably hits a ceiling? At the time, we ended up assuming a cap at 90%, which put us in good company. But I was neither satisfied nor comfortable with that approach and wanted to investigate this question further.

In the end, it seems that up to now, there is little evidence that the distinctive features of higher education do result in a distinctive pattern of expansion. It certainly expands more slowly, but otherwise the shape of the expansion is essentially the same as that of secondary schooling, and primary before that. At all levels, there is a great deal of variation between countries. This is one reason why our finding might seem surprising. It is easy to be misled by a eurocentric or US-centric perspective: in many countries around the world, higher education participation has rapidly pushed through levels at which other countries have been “stuck” for a decade or more.

It’s worth highlighting that none of this tells us much about whether it would be desirable for everyone to complete post-secondary education. The point is that we cannot dismiss the scenario that we might be heading in that direction whether it’s useful or not. Also, it is still entirely possible that higher education will not follow the same path as secondary has. However, to make that case requires an argument for how the dynamics are expected to change in the future, not one based on what we have seen so far.

Illustration of what expansion at different levels with “the same shape, but at different speeds” looks like.