Friday, November 9, 2012

Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College

Record shares of young adults are completing high school, going to college and finishing college, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available census data. In 2012, for the first time ever, one-third of the nation’s 25- to 29-year-olds have completed at least a bachelor’s degree.

These across-the-board increases have occurred despite dramatic immigration-driven changes in the racial and ethnic composition of college-age young adults, a trend that had led some experts to expect a decline in educational attainment.

College completion is now at record levels among key demographic groups: men and women; blacks, whites and Hispanics; and foreign-born and native-born Americans.

Also, a record share of the nation’s young adults ages 25 to 29 (90%) has finished at least a high school education. And another record share—63%—has completed at least some college.

Some of the “credit” for recent increases appears to go to the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the sluggish jobs recovery since. With young adults facing sharply diminished labor market opportunities, their rate of high school and college completion has been rising slowly but steadily since 2007, after having been stagnant during better economic times earlier in the decade.

Changing public attitudes about the importance of going to college to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based labor market may also have played a role. In 1978, the public was evenly divided over whether a college education was necessary to get ahead in life. Roughly 30 years later, a lopsided majority firmly endorsed the necessity of a college degree. In a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 73% of American adults agreed that, in order to get ahead in life these days, it is necessary to get a college education. Similarly, when the Gallup Organization asked about the importance of college in 2010, 75% of Americans said a college education is “very important.” In 1978, only 36% said the same.

The nation’s college-age population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse – today some 44% of 18- to 25-year-olds are non-white, up from 17% in 1971. Historically, Hispanic and black youths have trailed white and Asian youths in educational attainment. That remains the case, but rates for all four groups are rising at a similar pace.

The trends on college attainment are not all positive, however. The recent increases in the U.S. come at a time when other advanced economies are registering similar or greater gains, leading experts and college presidents to question whether the U.S. has been losing its competitive position as the global leader in higher education. In 2011 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of more than 1,000 college presidents nationwide. Among those college presidents surveyed, only 19% said the U.S. system of higher education is currently the best in the world, and just 7% said they believe it will be the best in the world 10 years from now. A plurality of presidents (51%) described the U.S. system as one of the best in the world.

That same survey also found that college presidents are concerned about the quality, preparedness and study habits of today’s college students. Overall, 52% of presidents say college students today study less than their predecessors did a decade ago; just 7% say they study more.

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