This Monday the Pew Research Center released one of its well-researched studies that has a serious message for those willing to listen. Unfortunately, in terms of news coverage, releasing a study the day before a presidential election guarantees that few folks will take note of the findings. They bear repeating.
The title of the report virtually says it all, “Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College”. The educational attainment of 25 to 29 year olds has risen to unprecedented levels in this country between 2000 and 2012. High school graduates have risen from 88% of the population in 2000 to 90% in 2012, those having had the benefit of some college education grew from 58% to 63% and those with a bachelor’s degree or more increased from 29% to 33% of the population.
Lest that not seem to be an achievement of significant proportions, a longer term perspective (40 years) might help to illuminate the scale and breadth of what has occurred.
From 1971 to 2012 high school graduates have increased from 57% to 88% of the general population, those having some college education from 22% to 57% of the population, and bachelor degree holders from 12% to 31% of the population. Those are increases of 54%, 160% and 150% respectively.
The report notes that those increases occurred while there were profound crosscurrents in the demography of this country. Working to the benefit of the positive trend was the fact that less educated cohorts have died off (tending to boost the overall attainment ratio of the rest of the population) but concurrently immigration has also impacted that ratio. In the latter decades of the twentieth century the immigrants tended to be less educated than the domestic population while in the first decade of this century they tend to be better educated; so there were complex forces at work pushing the ratios one way and the other.
Despite the vagaries of demographics and economics and cuts in budgets, the direction is unmistakable and crosses sexual, racial and ethnic lines as well. Women have gone from 14% college completion levels in 1971 (two thirds of the rate of men at the time) to 37% graduation rates, 7% higher than men. African Americans have seen their college completion rates rise from 7% in 1971 to 23% in 2012. Hispanics have risen from 5% to 15%. The Asian community has seen its students with college degrees rise from 1987 (the earliest year for the data for this group) at 44% to 60% in 2012 (outstripping whites at 40%).
It is an encouraging story across the board---everyone seems to be doing better and, given the wage premium that has increased 40% since 1983 for those with college degrees, the prospects of success for many young people are increasing dramatically.
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