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International students outperform American millennials, study finds

Despite having reached higher levels of educational attainment than any previous generations, American millennials are now, on average, demonstrating weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, a Tuesday study commissioned by the Educational Testing Service found.

“America’s Skill Challenge: Millennials and the Future” used data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies to compare millennials between the ages of 16 and 34 from the United States and 21 other countries. The report measured three main skill sets: literacy, numeracy and problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

Anita Sands, an ETS researcher and one of the authors of the report, said higher education may not be giving students adequate skills for the job market and may lead to debt.

“The focus of our report was to first and foremost draw attention to the fact that there is a skills challenge, but then we wanted to present it in the larger context of these global economic forces, technological changes and policy decisions that have happened over the past forty years that have really changed the way that we are organized in terms of labor,” she said. “We are hoping to start the conversation about where we want to go in the future.”

Of the 22 countries participating, U.S. millennials had lower literacy scores than 15 and ranked last in numeracy and problem solving skills, the report stated. The study included countries such as England, Canada, Japan and Korea.

Madeline Goodman, another ETS researcher and another author of the study, said the United States has a low standing even when comparing some of its best students.

“We took a cut at our 90 percentile, meaning our best performers overall regardless of their education level, and at that level, about three-quarters of the participating countries outperformed our best millennials,” Goodman said.

Top-performing American millennials scored lower than top millennials in 15 of the 22 countries, the report stated. The gap between the highest and lowest scoring individuals was 139 points, a higher gap than in 14 countries in the study.

Sands said she is surprised by how U.S. millennials performed compared to others.

“I knew that the U.S. performances overall wasn’t great, but I didn’t expect to see that same kind of performance for the millennials,” she said.

Phil Tate, a lecturer in Boston University’s School of Education, said achievement from students can have a significant impact on the country they are educated in.

“In this study, we see how the Scandinavian and BENELUX countries [Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg], the ones whose students usually score near the top of the heap, have benefited from consistent, long-term efforts to reduce their wealth, health and schooling gaps,” he said in an email. “Everyone fares better, not just the wealthy, and even the wealthy have more productive and happier lives than wealthy people in the U.S.”

Jay Halfond, a professor in the Metropolitan College, said these discrepancies could be the sign of a larger problem throughout the U.S. socioeconomic system.

“Educational inequality now leads to economic inequality later,” he said. “America is perhaps the greatest nation in providing opportunities for those who excel to receive an educational foundation that produces future leaders, but we have a dismal track record in extending our educational strengths to the benefit of everyone else without these advantages.”

Several students shared varying views on how well millennials are performing compared to those in other countries.

Maria Poccia, a junior in SED, said she was not at all surprised by the results of the study, and the importance of socioeconomic factors in this study might mean that it has fewer implications for a university like BU.

“At BU, though there is financial aid, I feel like there are many students here whose parents can afford to send them here, and with that ability comes higher levels of education for both the parents and the students,” she said.

Rachel Antonsen, a graduate student in SED, said the discrepancy of skill level between millennials in the United States and other countries comes down to much more than schools and teachers themselves.

“It’s sort of a systemic issue,” she said. “It has a lot to do with race and class inequalities in the United States and how that plays out in terms of access to quality education.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misquoted Anita Sands for a number mentioned in her first quote. The story has been corrected to reflect this change.

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