College completion at record levels for many Americans

In 2012, record shares of young U.S. adults are completing high school, continuing on to college and completing post-secondary credentials. For the first time ever, one-third of all 25- to 29-year-olds have completed at least a four-year degree and almost two-thirds (63 percent) have completed at least some college – including two-year associate's and four-year bachelor's degrees. In fact, "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."PewEdAttainment

Those are the findings of a new study on social and demographic trends by economists at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., based on data from the March Current Population Survey (CPS) between 1971 and 2012.

Beyond record educational attainment among young adults, the Pew researchers also found that for all U.S. adults 25 and over, educational attainment is at an all-time high. Specifically, in 2012, among all adults age 25 and older:

  • 88 percent had completed a high school diploma or the equivalent, compared to only 57 percent in 1971.
  • 57 percent had finished at least some college (including completing some college credits as well as earning associate's and bachelor's degrees), compared to 22 percent in 1971.
  • 31 percent had completed at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 12 percent in 1971.

The researchers attribute some of the most recent increases in educational attainment for young adults to the effects of the Great Recession, including the diminished labor market opportunities associated with it. Over the whole period from 1971 to the present, they also cite "changing public attitudes about the importance of going to college to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based labor market" as a contributing factor. For example, in a 2010 Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans said that a college education is very important, compared to only 36 percent who held the same belief in 1978.

Nevertheless, the researchers warn that despite this awareness of the importance of some post-secondary education beyond high school for workforce success, "the public remains of two minds about the value of college. On the one hand, strong majorities say a college education is important. On the other hand, many question the value of college given the rising costs."

– Frank Waterous

Article posted on November 13, 2012